2015 Grateful 34

saraAs is my wont, I wandered across the road for 6 o’clock mass to find the church packed to the rafters – standing room only. And I was only a minute late. A quick scan of what knowledge I have of feast days threw no light on this unexpected crowd. Two priests stood on the altar, one who might well have been a bishop. And in front of them, on an easel draped on flowers, was a black-and-white photo of a woman about my age. She didn’t look familiar.

I caught a few words in Hungarian – something is happening in 10 days’ time and the woman in the photo died in 1944. There were other bits and pieces but I couldn’t catch it. Nuns, in habits and in plain clothes wandered around, the tell-tale gray cardigans and white blouses a giveaway. Like the Gardaí (Irish police) you can always tell them, even when they’re out of uniform. So I figured the woman in the photo might be a nun.

I did the unthinkable and skipped the queue, cutting out the priest who was giving out Communion in the half of the church I was in.  I wanted to catch a name on that photo – and I did. Beata (Blessed) Sára Salkaházi (1899-1944). Her birthday would have been tomorrow.

Still clueless, I came home and Googled her and discovered what a fascinating life she had. She was a  tomboy with a strong will and a mind of her own, someone who liked to play tug-of-war with the boys, who liked to joke a lot, who wrote plays and short stories. She qualified as a teacher, learned her trade as a bookbinder, and then became a journalist. And before she signed up, she had been engaged to be married.

From what I read though, she never did get to take her final vows – because she was the 1940s equivalent of a  female dynamo and the sisters of the Sisters of Social Service (an order of nuns I’ve never heard of) thought that all her energy was her way of drawing attention to herself and this wasn’t exactly God-like. She was into everything to do with women and set up the  first Hungarian college for working women near the Balaton. But willfully, and in spite of their narrow-mindedness, Sára lived her life with self-imposed restrictions as if she had taken her final vows anyway. I like that.

She set up a Catholic Women’s Association and three years before her death, was appointed National Director of the 10, 000-women-strong Hungarian Catholic Working Women’s Movement  and edited its magazine, frequently writing against Nazism. She started hostels for working single women and in these hostels she hid those fleeing from the Nazis. On 27 December 1944, the Nazis descended on one of her hostels on Bokréta Street (just across the road from me and I never knew it) looking for Jews. They’d been betrayed by a woman who worked there. Sára wasn’t there at the time and could have stayed away, but she came back. And along with five others, she was arrested, taken to the banks of the Danube, and shot by the Arrow Cross. Together the sisters had saved more than 1000 people; Sára had saved 100.

She has the distinction of being the first non-aristocrat Hungarian to be beatified  and I wonder when she will be canonised.

sara2I can only imagine what the Sisters of Social Service thought when this chain-smoking, in-your-face, live-wire of a woman turned up declaring her vocation. From the little I’ve read, she seems like she was a force to be reckoned with, doing the work of ten, all the while challenging the system and standing up for what she believed to be right. That so many owe their lives to her is testament to the courage she had in her convictions and the beauty of her selflessness.

This week was a blue-arsed-fly type of week week, a good one that never let up,  full of challenges and new discoveries. To end it by stumbling across one of life’s better people is a bonus. I’m grateful that there are women in the world who truly have made a difference and still do. And I’m grateful that I know (of) some of them. I’m grateful, too, that I can include Sára on my list of the dead I’d like to have to dinner. What a woman.

And to Budapest, the city that keeps on giving – ta much.



The other five million

Of the 11 million said to have perished in the Holocaust, five million were not Jewish: they were Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, university professors from the Polish city of Lviv, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexual, political prisoners, artists, 500 teenagers of mixed African and German parentage (the offspring of French colonial troops stationed in the Rhineland in the early 1920s) – in short anyone who wasn’t deemed fit to be part of Hitler’s Germany.

Walking past the House of Terror museum on Andrassy út on Sunday, I noticed a small crowd and stopped to see what was going on. A stage had been  set up outside, underneath the framed photographs of Arrow Cross victims that line the walls of the building. Two groups of musicians sat side by side.

IMG_1676 (800x600)IMG_1670 (600x800)On the left was a group of Romani musicians, running through a sound check. One played what looked like a milk churn, another what looked like a small wooden bath. I was struck immediately by the venue – the street outside the building where many of their predecessors met their end. An estimated 28,000 Hungarian Roma were killed as part of the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust) which is said to have claimed the lives of as many as 500 000.

IMG_1664 (800x600)IMG_1660 (800x600)To their right was a larger group, all wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the words Párafónia Zenekar. The band was set up about ten years ago and now has twelve members who collectively play thirteen different instruments, and most of them have their own musical assistant. They play at home and abroad – Germany, the Netherlands , Austria, Belgium , Poland, Vojvodina, and Transylvania – and are truly amazing to watch and listen to.  Involved with FECO – the First European Colour Orchestraan orchestra of people with intellectual and physical disabilities founded in January 2002 – Párafónia Zenekar is living testimony to what might have been lost, had Hitler had his way.

The mass sterilisation programmes that were a prelude to Hitler’s T-4 Euthanasia programme saw the deaths of thousands mentally ill and disabled people. Institutions were emptied as their patients were gassed. Adults and children alike.

On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.

The mind boggles.

Later that afternoon, I joined thousands of others who took to the streets to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and yet it was those few minutes of music by those two particular groups in that particular setting that drove home to me what was done 70 years ago and what might have been lost.




I don’t have the bladder to be a spy

I’m directionally challenged. I have a hard time with East/West, barely managing left/right. By the time I figure out which way I should have the map facing, dusk is upon us and the day is wasted. And no matter how many helpful billboards there are with large YOU ARE HERE dots, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll be walking in circles for hours, until out of sheer frustration, I approach someone and beg them to walk me, by the hand, to spot X.

The resistance museum in Oslo is tucked away in Akershus Castle. Although clearly marked on said billboard maps, it took me two hours of aimless wandering before I finally accosted a local and, tears brimming, begged to be taken there in person. As Murphy’s law would have it, I was practically on top of it. Another embarrassing moment in the annals of M4.

IMG_6792 (800x597)There is something poetic about siting a resistance museum near the spot where Norwegian patriots were executed by the Germans in World War II. It was established as a foundation in 1966 (a great year for the world by all accounts) and opened to the public in 1970 with a mission to:

[Contribute] to the presentation of a true and authentic picture of the occupation by means of objects, pictures, printed matter, etc., collected, preserved, and exhibited with a view to giving the young people of today and coming generations a true to life impression of the evil represented by occupation and foreign rule, in this way helping to strengthen the sense of unity and defence of our national liberties.

Heady words. Mission accomplished. I went in knowing nothing about Norway in the war and came out with a lasting impression of the fortitude of her people and their determination to stay whole, despite the odds.

Prior to WWII, Norway had enjoyed 126 years of peace and wasn’t about to let go of it without a fight. At the entrance to the 200-meter vault, a line from a poem by wartime poet Nordahl Grieg captures the feeling:

Today no flag at the masthead on Eidsvoll’s greensward is seen,
but now we know as never before exactly what freedom can mean.
A song that is truly triumphant is sung by a million folk,
though whispered by lips that are sealed ‘neath an alien tyrant’s yoke.

IMG_6797 (600x800)Just nine days after Germany decided to invade Norway, Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Norwegian government that was summarily rejected. This can be seen in the museum pierced by one of hundreds of Mauser rifles arranged in the shape of a swastika. Following the evacuation of the royal family Norway took up the fight, despite an appeal by Vidkun Quisling who had seized power by a Nazi-backed coup d’etat. Later, he would be known as the ‘man who became a noun’ as the word ‘quisling’ came to mean ‘traitor’.

I’m fascinated by resistance and have often wondered what I would do if I found myself in the middle of a war. Would I be brave enough? I know I don’t have the bladder to be a spy but I would hope that I would be counted amongst those who took a stand against tyranny. And reading about the Norwegian resistance brought home to me what a nation can do if it stands together. The Supreme Court, in its entirety, resigned. Teachers, too. One in ten were arrested and 500 sent to Skjoerstad for their efforts. Actors from the theatres all over the country went on strike. Over a thousand police officers refused to sign a letter declaring their loyalty to the Nazis and 470 were arrested. Despite Hitler’s directive that Any pity for the civil population is inappropriate and Bishop Berggrav’s warning against civil resistance towards occupying forces – only warriors wage wars – the people stood firm. It seemed that an appeal from King Haakon printed in Lofotposten – I implore all Norwegians to support us in our attempts to free the country…Norway’s future is at stake – fell on more receptive ears. Despite edicts from the Church Department, the clergy would eventually come around and in 1941, a pastoral letter that refused to accept the Nazi’s changes was read from most pulpits. The reaction: for every German killed by resistance, 50 – 100 hostages were to be executed.

Despite these odds, at its zenith, 5000 men and women wrote, edited, printed, and distributed 60 clandestine newspapers with a circulation in 1943 of half a million copies knowing that, if caught, they faced certain death.

Norwegians living abroad didn’t escape penalty either. On 11 December 1941, they were stripped their citizenship and had to forfeit their assets in Norway. Reading back on the timeline of events, I’m left wondering at how ludicrous it was. In Trondheim, in March 1942, five men were executed for listening to radio and spreading information. We take so much of our freedom for granted.

On 16 November 1942, US President FD Roosevelt gave his famous Look to Norway speech:

If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.

Even now, reading these words, I can only begin to imagine the immense boost that must have given the country – and the pride… the pride in being Norwegian, what it must have been like. The Internet is full of cross-references to reporter Leland Stowe’s account of events. Stowe was Oslo when the Germans marched into the city. He reported seeing shocked Norwegians standing around watching …doing nothing… and read this as indifference and acceptance by the Norwegian public: we could see this stunned look of incomprehension in their upturned faces and bewildered citizens looked dumbly on. Unfortunately, I can’t track down Stowe’s Time article – I am sure it would make interesting reading and highlight, yet again, how dependent we are on media interpretation.

I was a little surprised in my reading to see that author Knut Hamsun wrote a short obituary for Hitler in which he described him as a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. I particularly enjoyed his book Dreamers and am a tad discomfited that we differ in our views of Hitler. Is it a question of my illusions being shattered or rather that I need to better manage my expectations? I wonder.

This excellent museum is well worth a visit if you find yourself in Oslo. I have only one issue with the exhibition and that is its inconsistency when it comes to reporting on the Jewish participation. In the foyer, there’s  a scaled-down version of what happened to a number of Norwegian Jew who fought in the resistance and its stats differ from those in the main exhibition: 772 / 760 deported; 34/24 survived. A minor difference perhaps, but the pedant in me can’t help but reflect on the Foundation’s mission: to present a true and authentic picture …

Light relief?

The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination. (Elbert Hubbard 1856-1915)

IMG_3890 (599x800)As I stood before the Uzvaras piemineklis (Soviet Victory Monument) in Riga last week and watched a newly married couple lay flowers at its base and then pose for photos, I thought it most peculiar. Strange, even. In Budapest, all communist statues were banished to Memento Park and yet in Latvia, they still stand on their pedestals.


IMG_3887 (581x800)This depiction of  Mother Russia is quite something to behold and on reflection, not having lived through those times in these places, who am I to judge the merits of communism. If the Soviets liberated the city, so be it. Let the statues declaim the victorious.

The monument, with its five gold stars, one for each year of the Second World War,  was erected in 1985 to commemorate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany. Why does the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’ come immediately to mind? Apparently it was bombed in 1997 by  members of the Latvian neo-Nazi group Pērkonkrusts, two of whom died that day. Yet it still stands tall and people still pay homage.

IMG_3543 (599x800)Elsewhere in the city, Brivibas Piemineklis (Freedom Monument) was built in 1935, paid for by the citizens of Riga and erected in honour of  soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). Standing 42 metres high, it is the tallest of its kind in Europe. It managed to survive Soviet rule intact, and now reigns over the capitalist edifices surrounding it.  Apparently, during the Communist era, the monument was jokingly referred to as a travel agent: to leave flowers at it resulted in a one-way ticket to Siberia. The Soviets may have let it stand, but they kept a sharp eye on who chose to visit it. And apparently they reinterpreted its symbolism: the three stars were said to stand for the newly created Baltic Soviet Republics – Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR – held aloft by Mother Russia and the monument was said to have been erected after World War II (which it wasn’t) as a sign of popular gratitude toward the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for the liberation of the Baltic States.

IMG_3431 (600x800)Another interesting and divisive statue from that period is Strēlnieku piemineklis (the Latvian Riflemen monument). It was originally dedicated apparently to the Red Riflemen who became Lenin’s bodyguards but is now said to commemorate all Latvian riflemen, red and white,  who fought in the First World War. This towering piece of red granite is very impressive.  And again, there’s a joke: it is said that the three men, looking so seriously into the distance, are waiting for the fourth to arrive with a bottle of booze.

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And, pre-dating any of the above (albeit it a modern version of an old stone) is the copy  5/6th century Livs idol, which was apparently found in 1851 by a farmer ploughing a field near Salaspils. A bit of light relief in comparison.

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