My most recent skip across the pond was to a part of Europe I knew would be a bit more sobering in many ways than my previous European travels. It was a trip that took me to the eastern part of Europe, and, as I have in the past, I did it as a part of a coach tour, this one offered by a company called Globus.
For everyone who knows even a modicum of history, my five-country looping trek through Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria and then back to Germany would show me not only the beauty of palaces, cathedrals and bridges steeped in antiquity but also the sites that speak of the totality of evil, much of which was perpetrated by the Nazi regime.
When I returned, I was surprised by the most common question people asked me about my trip, which was, “Did you go to Dachau?”
For those of you familiar with the typical European coach trips that I’ve done on several occasions, the type of trip where the meals, lodgings and sites selected to see are all arranged for you, you’re familiar with the setup. Via coach, you venture forth from the city into which you flew and, at the end of the week’s travel to a number of different places, you return to that same city.
During the drive into Munich’s historic Marienplatz (St. Mary, Our Lady’s Square) from the airport, since we would be on our own until the coach departure the next day, I asked our guide about how easy it would be to get to Dachau for a tour. She said it would be quite easy. Since our hotel was right across the street from the main train station, I could travel there on the S2 train in about 25 minutes. She said a five-hour tour would cost just $30.
However, with all the attractions I saw when I came out after storing the luggage in the hotel room as I began my way through Marienplatz, experiencing the vibrancy we all want from our vacations — in this case, the lively street musicians, the new Town Hall and its historic 43-bell clock, the Glockenspiel, and, arguably the world’s most historic beer hall, the Hofbrauhaus — I decided to save Dachau, the first of Hitler’s concentration camps in Germany, and that five-hour tour for the final day in Munich at the end.
Little did I know at that point how much of Eastern Europe’s dark history I would see before returning to Munich.
In Budapest, I stood on the banks of the Danube and saw the saddest memorial ever, one sculpted by Gyula Parer, simply called Shoes on the Danube. It consists of a long line of cast shoes on the cement walkway in front of the water. The shoes point in helter-skelter directions — some men’s, some women’s, and some children’s. Strewn among the shoes, people had left flowers and votive candles in remembrance to the victims the sculpture represents, Hungarian Jews who were marched to the river’s edge, told to remove their shoes and then shot into the water by the notorious pro-Nazi Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen.
Later in the same city, we toured the House of Terror, a museum that recalls the torture and execution of so many Hungarians, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets who occupied Hungary after World War II. The museum was on Andrassy, the city’s main avenue, in a building once used as headquarters for first Nazi and then the Soviet henchmen.
Later in the week, returning from Salzburg, Austria, we ascended into Germany’s Bavarian Alps to Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat and the southern headquarters of the Nazi Party. While there, I went down into the bunkers carved beneath the ground, large tunnels the Nazis saw as their safe haven, and also got a look at Eagle’s Nest, the chateau commissioned to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939, on the top of Mount Kehlstein, a building that was spared by Allied bombing. In a museum building, I saw photos of the gaunt faces of those in concentration camps and also the smug faces of the high-ranking Nazis who were their tormentors.
And, by the time I returned to Munich, on a day I easily knew what train to take and had the money to pay for a five-hour tour of a place where 200,000 were imprisoned and 40,000 died, I passed. No, instead I went for an up-close look at the iconic onion domes of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady.
I’d seen enough of the vestiges of the brutality of a very dark time. No, I didn’t go to Dachau that day. That would wait for another day … and another tourist.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.