An International Day of Remembrance

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Memorials throughout Europe honor the memory of individuals who were killed during the Holocaust and serve as a daily reminder to be vigilant.

History and responsibility are very clearly taught here.

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Max Oster of Oslo, Norway; born 1884, deported and killed 1 Dec. 1942

Germany and many other European countries pave gold “stumbling blocks” into the sidewalks to draw attention and promote reflection. Engraved with a name, the tiles are placed in front of the person’s previous residence. The last names and birth dates included allow you to speculate about the relationships between the people – often parent and child or husband and wife. It has the arresting effect, in the middle of the day, to make you suddenly imagine the person or persons living at the address in front of you and then see them being taken away.

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Family from Bamberg, Germany; deported and killed between 1941-1943
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August Klotzbach of Wiesbaden, Germany; arrested for treason in 1935 and survived

Date and/or place of death is often marked as unknown. In those cases, any known information about the person’s deportation is listed. Cities that are listed are mostly in Eastern Europe (as all death camps were purposely located outside of Germany): Auschwitz, Poland and Riga, Latvia being among some of the most common.

Munich is apparently the only German city that doesn’t use the gold blocks, as they feel it’s disrespectful to have names of the deceased underfoot.

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Frankfurt’s Holocaust Memorial Wall

In Frankfurt, a memorial wall also stretches around the old Jewish cemetery. Similar to the gold street bricks, small plaques jutting out display the names and fates of former Frankfurt residents who perished during this dark period of history, including Anne Frank. Visitors pay respects to those lost by placing stones on the protruding plaques that stretch on for rows upon rows upon rows.

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Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

For more on how Berlin remembers victims of the Holocaust and the National Socialist regime, see Berlin Remembers.

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Neologe Synagogue in Brașov, Romania
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Old New Synagogue in Prague – oldest active synagogue in Europe
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Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary – largest in Europe
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Memorial in the Dohány Synagogue courtyard

Today, the oldest still-active synagogue in Europe is in Prague, Czech Republic and the largest synagogue in Europe is located in Budapest, Hungary. We happened to visit Budapest during Rosh Hashanah and saw many families on their way to services both at the Dohány Street Synagogue and a smaller synagogue in the same area.

 

Interestingly, the relatively new Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation currently stands as a hotly contested source of criticism in Budapest. Intended to memorialize Holocaust victims, its use of symbols is intended to misconstrue history, according to daily peaceful protestors. Specifically, they take issue with the representation of Hungary as an angel being attacked by the German eagle. Protesters demand that Hungary not deny the complicity its government and some of its citizens took with the Third Reich during the Holocaust. Their goal is to replace what they consider a gross misrepresentation of history with a more fitting memorial.

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Budapest memorial in question
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Protesters’ issues explained
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Call to the Prime Minister: “Mr. Oban, Tear Down Your Monument!”
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Pictures, stories, and artifacts in front of the monument
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Stones, candles, and plants honor lost lives

Both the monument itself and the surrounding controversy serve as an important reminder that how we portray history becomes how we remember it.

Never again.

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Budapest: Memorial to people lined up and shot into the Danube 1944-45
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5 Key Words in Romanian

Language tells us what a culture values. While living and working in Romania in August, I continually heard words related to family, religion, formality, and good health. I discovered a way of life that is as simple in style as it is rich in relationships. Here are a few words that I consider keys to unlocking an understanding of Romanian culture.

Traditional stove
Traditional stove
Children's mural
Children’s mural

1. Masă

This can mean table or meal, as both together are a central gathering place for families. Lunch is the main masă of the day, always consisting of a soup followed by a main course. Dinner is usually late – around 8 p.m. – so a late afternoon snack is typical. A short prayer is said while standing around the table before meals at home. When I worked at the school, the children also followed this custom as though they were at home while gathering around long lunch tables. We ate from clay bowls that had been formed on the pottery wheel and painted by the children during previous school years.

Table set for lunch
Table set for lunch’s first course

2. Amin

Amen. Religion is also a focal point in the lives of Romanian people, the majority of whom are Eastern Orthodox. Families and neighbors gather at churches for regular Sunday masses, visit churches on Saturdays to pray for departed loved ones, fast during numerous times of the year, and celebrate life events together. I was invited to attend part of a church service (regular Sunday services are around three hours in their entirety) and found it very interesting. During parts of the mass, the priest disappears behind a partition covering an area behind the altar. There are a few chairs lining the walls but the majority of the congregation stands for the entire mass. Dress is very modest and most women cover their heads with a scarf.

A while after I had found a spot to stand, off to the side and not too close to the front, a gentleman nudged me to move because I was standing in front of an area the priest was about to walk to. I moved over accordingly and then, as I looked around, realized that all of the other women were standing on the other side of the aisle and I had been standing the whole time on a side with only men. Not all Romanian churches are divided by gender, but it appeared to be an unspoken rule in this one. I sidled across the aisle when the priest was passing back up again.

Village church replica outside the Peasant Museum
Village church replica outside the Peasant Museum

3. Doamna/Domnule

Mrs. or Ma’am/Mr. or Sir. Titles are used regularly as a sign of respect, often with first names. I noticed even people who had known each other a long time tended to use titles and formal language, particularly those who worked together. Children always used titles with adults outside of their families. For the time that I taught English, I became known as Doamna Nina by children and adults alike. Sometimes the children referred to me in English as “Miss.” I felt a little like an old schoolmarm with these titles, fitting perfectly in my classroom filled with old-fashioned long wooden desks and benches.

The classroom
The classroom

4. Mamaliga

Polenta (cooked cornmeal, if you’re not familiar with it) is a very typical side dish or dinner in Romania, where it is often flavored with butter or goat’s or sheep’s cheese. In general, Romanian food tends to be very simple and made from fresh ingredients: stewed meats, tomatoes, peppers, olives and lemons, honey, bread, etc. One of my favorite typical dishes was Ardei Umpluti: bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of rice, ground pork, onions and seasonings baked in the oven.

Romanian food products
Romanian food products

5. Noroc!

Cheers, good luck or good health. You can say it when you toast before having a drink, when someone sneezes, or just to wish someone well. Some time after explaining to someone that we say “bless you” in English after a sneeze, I clinked glasses with “Noroc!” and heard the same person proudly remember “Bless you!” I laughed and explained that we instead say “Cheers” as a toast. Noroc conveys good wishes in a variety of contexts, and for its multipurpose use, I consider it one of the most important Romanian words.

Afternoon snack and coffee. Noroc!
Afternoon snacks and coffee. Poftă bună (enjoy your meal) and noroc!

At the Potter’s Wheel

First day's work front left
First day’s work front left
The potter's wheel
The potter’s wheel

My time at the pottery wheel was a unique experience, though not so unlike my time teaching English in the classroom in Romania this summer. Here I was the student and, like my own students, faced with a language barrier that forced me to rely on context to understand something new and foreign to me.

The master potter was a wizened gentleman from the village who shuffled along to the school every morning to teach his craft to the children and, incidentally, interested adults during breaks in the day. Dressed in a light gray suit that would perpetually become dotted with the day’s clay, he traded his hat and cane for an artisan’s apron and situated himself on a chair before the motorized wheel in the main entry room of the home-turned-school.

He clapped the wet clay heavily from one hand to another as he directed me to dunk my hands in a utility bucket and coat them in the grayish water and slimy remnants of clay along the rim. As he worked the clay on the wheel, endless potential was revealed. From one second to the next it seemed a vase, a dish, a bowl, a cup. It could take any form you could give it. And no clay was wasted. Once, a forming vase broke and the clay that remained on the wheel was instead turned into a tiny pitcher. The scraps used on our hands were wiped off against the bucket to be used again.

The potter demonstrated various techniques for me to try or put his clay-masked hands over mine so I could understand the correct form. All the while speaking to me in Romanian so that I had to concentrate hard on what I could see and remember from previous sessions.

There were few tools besides the wheel and two hands. A metal tool like a razor blade was used to carefully smooth the outer surface as the piece turned, and a piece of string was pulled tautly across the bottom to separate the pottery from the wheel when it was finished. At this point I would be instructed to scrape the palms of my hands against the edge of the bucket before picking up what I had made, so that, as he indicated, the clay of the pottery wouldn’t stick to the clay on my hands.

It was no easy work, and I felt just as malleable as the clay I attempted to form on the wheel with a great deal of assistance. I wonder what the potter thought of teaching at the school or if he had, in fact, already told me. He was neither particularly friendly nor cold to anyone, simply there to teach a skill that he himself must have learned early on.

The only glimpse I got into his life came from a story an artist at the school told me. He had asked the potter once what he thought of the changes that had occurred in Romania since the revolution in the late 80s and whether he thought things were improving. “What do you mean?” the potter had asked. “My entire life has been exactly the same.” As he put his hat back on and took his cane to slowly make his way back home for lunch every day, I wondered how remarkable that self-reliant life must be.

Child learning from the potter
Teaching a child
Pottery collection at the end of the program
Pottery collection at the end of the program

The Truth About Dracula’s Castle and Other Things I Learned in Romania (and Bulgaria)

Vlad the Impaler (?!)
Vlad the Impaler

“Is it usually so foggy this time of year?”

We rode in a van through the Carpathian Mountains in what was once Transylvania, one of three former kingdoms that now comprise Romania. We had just passed through a gypsy village and more than once had seen a horse and cart on the road carrying logs or hay.

“Yes, usually in the mornings over the farmland,” our driver/tour guide answered. I don’t know why I was surprised. While we had waited for him to pick us up at our Home Away apartment a couple hours earlier, a black cat had loitered a short way ahead of us on the sidewalk. “First we’re going to Peleş Castle and at the end I want you to tell me which you think is better.”

I’ll let you decide for yourself about the castles, and the rest of the highlights of the trip as well. What follows is the rest of our long weekend of sightseeing.

Peleş Castle

Extravagant is the best way to describe the first castle we visited before the main event. It had been commissioned by King Carol I of Romania, who was originally born in Germany. The outer design particularly retains a lot of German style, while the inside is filled with carved wooden wall decorations, Italian marble, a Turkish smoking room, and so on and so on. I imagined this being built after a consultation that went something like, “I have virtually unlimited money and want to showcase my wealth. What can you do for me?” The result was truly gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

Peleş Castle
Peleş Castle

Bran Castle (“Dracula’s Castle”)

The four of us had prepared for this visit by taking turns reading aloud from the opening of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on our balcony in Bucharest on the evening we arrived. Bran Castle, having belonged to Queen Mary for much of its history, is built directly into a foundation of sheer rock. It stoically served as the gateway between the former kingdoms of Transylvania and Wallachia. Compared to Peleş Castle, its unornamented wooden rooms make it look like more of a practical living space.

The truth is that this castle is only loosely tied to the (anyway, fictitious) story of Dracula. It seems that Bram Stoker had at one point visited Bucharest, collected stories from Romanian history and folklore, and spun them into a tale whose tremendous popularity is to blame for a good deal of tourism in this area. The tyrannical Vlad the Impaler’s father was named Vlad Dracul, and the Impaler’s grandfather had owned Bran Castle for a few years after it was given to him as a gift. So the family name Dracul, the briefly owned Transylvanian castle, and Romanian folklore about “strigoi” (vampires that could be warded off with garlic, etc.) has since breathed a new and mysterious life into the scenically located but otherwise ordinary Bran Castle.

Side view of Bran Castle
Side view of Bran Castle
View from Bran Castle
View from the top of the castle
Inside Bram Castle
Rooms inside

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Religion

We visited many churches on this trip as well and learned a lot about religion in Romania. The vast majority of Romanians are Christian Orthodox, with some Catholics in Transylvania and a smaller percentage of other religions. The first thing we noticed in the Christian Orthodox churches was that there are very few seats and that these usually line the walls. That’s because church-goers stand for services. Note: A typical Sunday service is three hours long, while a holiday service can last closer to five hours. Smaller services take place twice a day. And Wednesdays are somewhat important church days too. And Fridays. And we even saw a roadside church where people can take their new cars to be blessed.

Christian Orthodox church
Christian Orthodox church
Paintings outside the entrance
Paintings outside the entrance

In a small town called Braşov we also saw a beautiful historic synagogue. Post-WWII Romania has a small Jewish population as well.

Synagogue in Braşov
Synagogue in Braşov

Bulgaria

We spent the following day with the same guide on a trip to Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. Bucharest is about an hour from the Bulgarian border and from here we traveled another two hours to this scenic city, crossing the Danube and winding our way through the Balkans. Although both countries are part of the EU, they each still use their own currency and have a toll booth-style customs office you have to pass through on the border. Once in Veliko Tarnovo an older gentleman behind a counter exchanged some Euros for Bulgarian lev (meaning “lion” like the Romanian lei) with a calculator and stacks of money. In the meantime, signs had switched over into the Cyrillic alphabet. Romania had once used this alphabet too but changed over to the Latin alphabet we use, with the addition of many types of accent marks.

Bulgaria has changed hands many times in its history: It was ruled by czars, it belonged to the Ottoman Empire, part of it belonged to Romania, it was under Communist rule, and is currently a democracy. Unlike Romania, it apparently achieved democracy without a revolution. As you can see, we saw a town-enclosing fortress that was rebuilt under Communist rule, a beautiful church hidden inside an ordinary-looking farmhouse, and a Turkish-style (Ottoman Empire period) house.

First glimpse of Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo
First glimpse of Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo
Fortress up close
Fortress up close
Execution rock
Execution rock
Beautifully painted church hidden inside this house
Beautifully painted church hidden inside this house
Konstantsalieva House
Konstantsalieva House
Turkish-style living room inside
Turkish-style living room inside

Bucharest: A City in Transition

Unity Square with The People's House (now Palace of the Parliament) in the distant center
Unity Square with The People’s House (now Palace of the Parliament) in the distant center

Impressions of fear, oppression, and poverty from the not-so-distant past still hang in the air of Romania’s fascinating capital even as it continues to rise into a more optimistic future. James and I traveled here with two of our friends for a long weekend and learned a great deal about Bucharest’s mysterious history from a free city tour guide. It was incredible to hear about the history from someone who was born not so long before the revolution and to see remnants of it up close.

Vlad the Impaler: One of many heroes erected from Romania's history in the 80's
Vlad the Impaler: One of many heroes erected from Romania’s history in the 80’s

Modern-day Bucharest was largely shaped by and in response to its last communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu in the 1980s. He wanted to rebuild the city in larger-than-life proportions, ordering existing buildings to be torn down to make room for his vision: a boulevard a few centimeters wider and longer than the Champs-Élysées, new apartment buildings to hide churches from sight in the main squares, a grandiose palace nicknamed the iceberg for its maze of underground offices and secret tunnels, and so on. Ceauşescu never lived to inhabit the palace near Unity Square that he dubbed “The People’s House.” Michael Jackson was the first person to speak from its balcony after the revolution where he mistakenly referred to the city as Budapest (the capital of Hungary).

Buildings waiting to be restored
Buildings waiting to be restored

Many buildings in the city are being restored, but many still lie in ruins. Under Ceauşescu’s leadership, people were denied ownership of individual property and evacuated from their homes to live in assigned group housing. Over time squatters took over many abandoned properties, ripping up floorboards and lighting fires to keep warm during the winters.

During communist times, everything was also rationed. People waited in long lines for whatever food was available at a particular time and electricity was cut off in homes at 9 p.m. But our tour guide said the worst part was the lack of freedom. People weren’t allowed to express their ideas openly and were unable to trust anyone, including their families. It was even dangerous to express opposing views about the government in front of children because teachers were trained to ask questions to gain this type of information.

Revolution Square
Revolution Square
Memorial of Rebirth (black marks represent communism leaving an impression on Bucharest)
Memorial of Rebirth (black marks represent communism leaving an impression on Bucharest)

In 1989 rumblings of revolution brought Ceauşescu back from a trip to make a televised speech to show the strength of the government. He spoke from a low balcony (strategically filmed to appear much higher) to a crowd that turned on him. This area is now called Revolution Square and is filled with monuments commemorating the revolution. The military ended up joining the people, and Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were caught not long after, brought to trial, and executed by a firing squad.

Bullet holes from '89 still visible near the top of the building on the left
Bullet holes from ’89 still visible near the top of the building on the left

In the five or so days leading up to Ceauşescu’s capture there were many casualties, but not nearly as many as in the week or so during his imprisonment. During that time, the military provided the people with guns and told them that there were terrorists in their midst. Paranoia reigned, and whether it was true or whether there was nothing to fear but fear itself, many people died including many foreign students (Ceauşescu had allies with leaders in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan). Strikingly, we saw a magazine photo of an Iranian student’s body with the word “Terrorist” written on it.

At the end of the tour, we tasted a bland crunchy snack called Pufuleti that our tour said her childhood had been full of. “I don’t know if we’re a real democracy yet,” she said. “I think we’re still in transition.” She gave the rest of the bag of Pufuleti to a man of the street, telling us that she had had enough.

Ads - Pufuleti are at the bottom left
Ads – Pufuleti are at the bottom left
Cișmigiu Gardens
Cișmigiu Gardens