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It came to my mind in Nuremberg. Ten days later I remembered it again in Budapest.
“We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’” (from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail)
After two-and-a-half years of pandemic imprisonment, we dusted off our passports and ventured back to Europe, particularly to the area of the Danube River. To be sure, the time on the romantic river offered a plethora of cathedrals, castles, and Christkindlesmarkte; medieval villages, Roman ruins, palaces, and parliament buildings provided beauty and wonder. Schnitzels, wursts, strudels, and goulash accompanied by refreshing bier, glühwein, and apricot brandy, sated our appetites and challenged belts.
These vacation delights, however, were bookended by two cities—Nuremberg in Germany, where our journey began, and Budapest in Hungary, where our travels ended—some powerful experiences and provided lessons we all should learn.
During the last several years in the U.S., voices on both ends of the political spectrum have worked to erase, or at least cover up, aspects of our nation’s history that they find disturbing or contrary to their partisan goals.
In particular, those inspired by the MAGA movement have been striving to redact the unspeakable, grisly treatment suffered by earlier generations of African Americans from our public education curricula. These ultra-nationalists seem to feel that if they can erase the slavery issue from our children’s history books, then this egregious irony so well documented in “the land of the free” never happened. We should never forget.
Concurrently some on the left side of the political scale have been suggesting that Confederate memorials and statues be removed from public view, including those at our nearby Gettysburg National Park. Such advocates claim such effigies celebrate and propagate the White Supremacist views held by the South during the War Between the States. We should never forget.
In both these instances the proponents appear to feel that expunging uncomfortable aspects of our history is preferable to confronting and addressing the grievous issues head-on as European entities are doing.
The fascist führer Adolf Hitler made Nuremberg, Germany, the “City of Nazi Party Rallies.” The tyrant planned a seven-square-mile site, designed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer, to reinforce party enthusiasm and to showcase the power of National Socialism to the rest of Germany and the world. While the dictator’s showcase never came to full completion, its remains today serve as a continuing reminder of what the madman did and had planned to do.
“Officials have long grappled over what should be done with this dilapidated monument to Nazi supremacy,” reports Brigit Katz in a Smithsonian Magazine article. “Ultimately, however, officials decided that the grounds should be preserved; in part, according to [Bloomberg journalist] Catherine Hickley, because they did not want to erase this difficult chapter of the city’s history. . . .”
Nuremberg officials felt it was important for their citizens and city visitors to learn from history the atrocities of Hitler and the Third Reich so that they can never again occur.
We should never forget.
The beautiful, bifurcated capital of Hungary, Budapest, served as the second bookend of our travels; it provided another experience of remembering lest we forget.
“During that autumn and winter [1944 and 1945], after the Germans had toppled the government of Miklos Horthy bringing Ferenc Szálasi and his fascist, violently antisemitic Arrow Cross Party to power, the Arrow Cross introduced a reign of terror in Budapest,” writes Sheryl Silver Ochayon of the International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem. “The Arrow Cross militiamen ran amok in the streets of Budapest, beating, plundering, and killing Jews publicly. Thousands of Jews were murdered all over the city.”
A common practice used by these violent, Nazi-emulating terrorists was herding Jews from the city to the Danube River, lining up the men, women, and children along the banks, and forcing the innocent residents to turn their backs to the river and face their firing squads who mercilessly executed them.
Ochayon continues:“Shooting the Jews into the Danube was convenient because the river carried the bodies away. Often, the Arrow Cross murderers would force their terrified Jewish victims to remove their shoes before shooting them into the Danube. Shoes, after all, were a valuable commodity during World War II. The killers could use them or trade them on the black market.”
Wanting to commemorate the victims of such senseless violence and to serve as a warning against such brutality in the future, in 2005 film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created The Shoes on the Danube Promenade.
This memorial installation comprises sixty pairs of old-fashioned shoes, the type people wore in the 1940s. There are women’s shoes, there are men’s shoes, and there are children’s shoes. They sit at the edge of the water, scattered and abandoned, as though their owners had just stepped out of them and left them there. It is a powerful, heart-rending shine.
Sheryl Ochayon concludes her article: “Despite the individuality of each of the shoes and the particularity of the events that transpired on the freezing banks of the Danube in that dark winter of 1944-1945, the monument challenges us to look at the bigger picture, and think about the mass murder of individuals, wherever it occurs.” We should never forget.
Philosopher George Santayana’s 1905 observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has been repeated so often, some now might consider it banal.
Clearly the people of Nuremberg and Budapest do not. They do not want a repeat of what their earlier generations suffered; they have taken bold steps so that current and following generations remember and learn from the misguided actions of the past.
Perhaps if our country’s students in the last century had been taught more about US President Andrew Jackson’s loathsome 1830 “Indian Removal Act” which led to the horrific “Trail of Tears” for thousands of indigenous Americans, our society would remember it now, and 27% of Native Americans would not be living in poverty.
Conceivably if the current crop of ultraconservative groups such as the “Freedom” Caucus in both the US and PA Houses of Representatives would work to educate our citizenry about the mistakes made in the past instead of laboring to eradicate them from our minds, 11 million white Americans would not be aligned with the alt-right and its support of White Supremacy and Christian Nationalism.
If “brotherhoods” such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, who deny not only the past but also the present, were to study our founding fathers’ eloquent writings and discover what these documents actually mean rather than trying to incinerate them and attacking our institutions with AR-15s, pipe bombs, nooses, and lies, they might discover the beauty and possibilities which a diverse nation realized on some levels in the past and offers for a grander future.
Possibly if we remembered our past and learned from it, our nation would be less divided, less angry, less partisan, less impotent when it comes to solving matters of social justice, less ineffectual in addressing and eliminating inequality—financial, educational, medical, and electoral.
We must never forget.
A self-aggrandizing Nazi monster’s “city within a city” or a silent array of shoes—both are reminders of past barbarity and inhumanity. Both are lessons of what should never have been or should never be. Keep our pasts—admirable and abominable—alive so that our futures might be worthy of admiration and worth living.
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