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June 5, 2007 > Exploring and understanding Eastern Europe

Exploring and understanding Eastern Europe

By Arnie Becker

As a young person growing up during the Cold War, the McCarthy Era, and the era of assured mutual destruction I always wondered about the people and governments of whom we were deathly afraid? What was the Warsaw Pact? Were citizens of these countries our enemies? Or was the hostility a product of the Russian government and their puppet governments?

Recently I returned from a two week trip to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It opened my eyes to what these countries and those surrounding them have gone through for almost the last 90 years. Transformation from part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, to occupation by the Nazis during WWII, to Russian occupation after the war, to a struggling free market economy, to membership in the European Union, citizens of these countries have proven to be remarkably resilient.

On November 11, 1918 Poland regained its independence only to have it taken away September 1, 1939. I did not know, for example, that Warsaw was 85 percent destroyed during WWII; first by the allies and then by retreating Germans. Or that rebelling residents unsuccessfully fought the Germans during the "Warsaw Uprising," in August 1944 trying to regain control of their city prior to Russian occupation.

On September 17, 1945, the Russian Red army entered Warsaw and so began the history of modern Poland. Reconstruction of the city began almost at once. Historic buildings were rebuilt from scratch. But, unfortunately, the new communist government did not intend to resurrect pre-Warsaw, wanting instead to create a socialist city in its place.

Land, industry and trade were all nationalized and under Stalinist rule, terror and cultural stagnation took a firm hold. In 1956, with the end of Stalinism, a general thaw took place but it was not until the end of communist control in 1989 that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic really began to blossom. Literature, music, art, and education exploded.

Local citizens explained what they have gone through and how, not too long ago, salaries were $100 a month or less and rationing of meat, butter and other staples was common. In recent memory, people disappeared, never to be heard from again. You can still walk down a street and see bullet holes in buildings.

From Warsaw, we drove to the old city of Krakow, now filled with music and art; very much alive with good restaurants. This was in stark contrast to our first excursion outside of this city.

Just a short drive outside Krakow is the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is hard to visit this place where hundreds of thousands lost their lives: Jews, Poles, Hungarians and Romanians. It is almost impossible to comprehend man's inhumanity to man and the vast number put to death here. And not only put to death, but also subjects of medical experiments of the most horrible kind one can imagine. It makes one very humble to know that these human beings had done nothing wrong except to be of the wrong religion, the wrong nationality or the wrong profession.

Enough of the old concentration camp is left to view the indelible sight of crematoriums, vast barracks complexes, open and group toilets, "shower" rooms, back drops for firing squads, and tiny cells where many died of starvation standing up. There are rooms filled with human hair, shoes, suitcases and other items collected by the Nazis. Flowers, in memoriam, at various sites around the camp are very moving.

Those who deny the Holocaust should come here to see for themselves what is very real. Unless they believe that somehow this museum was built after the war, and that what is here is fake, it is impossible to accept their position.

This was not a place to be happy. Most of our group was silent and some were crying. Several people in the group had lost relatives here or in the other concentration camps and were even more impacted than the rest of us.

Traveling on to Hungary, I did not know what to expect. Would it be a modern country, a war torn country or a country like those in Western Europe. Imagine my surprise to find KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and other American fast food places located throughout the major cities and at the highway rest stops. Shopping seems to be a major pastime as does sitting in a sidewalk cafˇ having pastry and coffee. They also have the best ice cream I have ever eaten.

In all of the Eastern European countries included in this trip, the people, for the most part, seemed more reserved than in America. Wait staff were not rude but not friendly either. If two or more people sat down at a restaurant, they wanted to give one bill, not two. You are never rushed. It is possible to sit at a sidewalk cafˇ for most of the afternoon while paying for one coffee. At the same time, service was slow because eating a meal in this part of the world is an event, a social outing, a time for reflection.

An interesting note of this trip is that I had better mobile phone coverage than at home, both voice and data service. At every hotel where we stayed, there was free high speed broadband connection.

The third and last country we visited on this trip was the Czech Republic. Formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia, it is a small country with a lot of old world charm. Left pretty much intact during WWII, there are many old castles, palaces and grand estates that retain their original splendor. Prague is less developed in terms of modern shopping centers and malls than Warsaw and the city center is better preserved than some others. Transportation within the city is easy on public transport and fairly inexpensive, especially in comparison to the cost of $6 per/gallon gasoline.

There is a residual hatred of Germans and things German. Shortly after the war, Germans and German sympathizers were expelled from the country. Many were given only 24 hours to pack and leave with whatever they could carry or put in their cars. This law remains on the books today. There is some discussion of changing the law, but so far no one has been able to muster the votes to make it happen.

Some had come on this trip because they had relatives in one of the three countries that we visited. Some had corresponded, in one case for 50 years, but never met. In other cases, members of our group just got out the phone book to see if they could identify relatives still living. Of course these meetings were emotional and it was interesting to hear of the bonds formed in an instant between people who had never met.

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