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August 19, 2016

Musings on Europe

Patricia A. Kelly

I awoke the morning after returning from Europe with a sense of dismay because the hotel where I stayed while in Prague was built on the site where Jews were gathered for transport to the camp called Theresinstadt, to await transfer to death camps.


I thought of Frederick, where, when it was discovered that a cemetery for black working people had been covered over to make a playground, the playground was removed, and the site transformed into Laboring Sons Memorial Park.


That was the least Prague could have done for 49,000 Jews.


There are tall, historic apartments across the street, where people could watch. Or, did they just keep the front curtains closed?


The trip was a river cruise, a very popular and comfortable form of travel these days, with lavish meals, entertainment, beautiful views and visits to amazing cities.


We flew to Budapest, and traveled down the Danube to Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg, and finally, Prague. We also visited the intact medieval town of Durnstein, where actor Richard Gere owns the local hotel, once frequented by Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, along with the Czech city of Cesky Krumlov.


Europe is so old that it can be startling for an American. Buildings dating back to the 10th century, and, more often 15th or 16th centuries abound, some with their original decorated facades. So many centuries of civilization in such a small area, rich with history, are a wonder.


Bones are another European wonder. So many people died in such a small area over such a long time that they are, even now, often removed from their graves after a decent interval. Displaying them is quite common, unlike here, where no bone appears except at Halloween.


It seems this custom began centuries ago as a reminder of where all would end up, and that one should be glad for the time one has. That would be important, considering the trying lives of peasants living under royalty at the time.


Frequently, in churches, well dressed skeletons in glass caskets appear above altars. There are also tiny bone chips called relics, ensconced in gorgeous golden, bejeweled containers. John the Baptist really got around. His relics are found in Europe, and his forearm lives on in an ancient Sultan’s palace in Turkey.


A trip highlight was learning about politics in Europe. They are having the same conversations we are, including daily reports on Donald Trump. The conservatives there are very concerned about immigration and about maintaining their cultures. The liberals want to take everyone in, and give them money.


One very special thing about the company with which I traveled, Grand Circle, is the effort they make to provide travelers with real learning about the world they are visiting, beyond pretty buildings and tales of past kings. In our case, it meant an opportunity to meet with “witnesses,” people who have participated in events of world importance. We met a man who participated, as a student, in the final revolution in the Czech Republic, in 1989, that sent the communist regime back to Russia.


In Budapest, we learned of more recent immigration issues, from a man who found himself in charge of the care and feeding of 6,000 Syrian refugees stranded at the train station. It began when he found a family sleeping on the sidewalk and fed them. More and more people arrived, having lost their papers and money, unable to move on to Germany because of border closings. The Hungarian government did nothing, so the people of Budapest stepped in and brought food every day, enough to feed them all. Even the elderly poor offered to buy a loaf of bread daily and bring sandwiches, showing up at the same time every day with their offerings, so the people were cared for until they could move on.


Among the 6,000 were two men who later participated in the Paris shooting that left eighty-four people dead. Our witness’s response to this was to express his sorrow, and then to say: “If ISIS just wanted to blow something up, they could much more easily get a false passport and come in. They infiltrate the refugees to cause fear. One should never let fear stop one from doing the right thing.”


There’s a lesson that should cross the ocean.


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