By: Seth Fast
Last month I was blessed, along with many other Zags, to visit the magnificent city of Budapest as part of the Travel Learning Program here at Gonzaga in Florence. From February 15-18th we walked around the city and experienced the culture, history, and feel of the capital city of Hungary.
On Friday, our first full day in Budapest, we started off with a guided walking tour. We were shown many cool buildings and monuments, such as the Parliament building, and the controversial Jewish Holocaust memorial found in downtown Budapest. The memorial is controversial because it paints Nazi-Germany as the antagonist, while representing Hungary as an angel overlooking the Jews. However, many Hungarians were on the side of Nazi-Germany and aided in the horrific killing of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Many people are upset with the way that the monument depicts Hungary as the savior, when that was not necessarily the case. It was enlightening to see all the signs and pictures of protest placed in front of the monument. While I was unable to read many of them since they were in foreign languages, it was sobering to see the pictures of loved ones who were lost during the horrible time of the Holocaust.
We were also able to visit the Jewish Synagogue, where there were two important monuments memorializing those who were lost during World War II. This included the Holocaust Tree of Life. The Tree was designed by Imre Varga in 1991, and on the leaves of the tree are some of the family names of those who were lost during the Holocaust. We were told that to this day, the designer will come to the tree and inscribe by hand the name of a loved one who was affected by the Holocaust if the family requests. It was powerful to get up close and read some of the names of those who were affected by this terrible event.
Another powerful experience we had was when we visited the House of Terror. It is a museum that depicts the fascist and communist regimes of Hungary in the 20th century. It serves as a memorial for the victims of this period, including those who were interrogated, tortured, and killed in the building which we visited. It serves as a harsh reminder that we cannot allow toxic regimes to gain power, otherwise the consequences are severe and innocent people suffer. We saw the cells that people were kept in and tortured in, which was hard to experience knowing that people suffered greatly at the exact place we were safely standing. The House of Terror Museum, along with the visit to the Jewish Synagogue with the Tree of Life memorial, served as great reminders of the pain and suffering experienced in Hungary and elsewhere in the 20th century, and I think it was incredibly important and humbling to have been able to experience both places.
On a lighter note, perhaps my favorite part of the trip was when we went to the thermal baths. Although it was difficult to wake up at 5:30 in the morning to leave for the baths at 6, it was totally worth it. We had the baths almost completely to ourselves, as the locals were enjoying their sleep on an early Saturday morning. The warmth and relaxation provided by the baths made the trek through the morning cold easily worthwhile.
We were spoiled on Saturday night, when we partook in a delicious Hungarian meal while on a cruise ship sailing down the Danube river. The view of the city lit up from the boat was amazing, the food was incredible, and the company of newly-made friends was priceless.
Our trip to Budapest was a blast, but also served as a sobering reminder of the horrors that were experienced in Europe in the 20th century. We’ve been taught about the Holocaust and WWII our entire lives, but to be able to see the effects it had on Hungary was a great learning experience. We weren’t just absorbing information, rather we were shown the humanity and personal side of the event. It was a powerful trip and one that I’m extremely grateful to have been able to take part in.