First of four parts

Many of us in Green Valley were small children during World War II. Some may remember back to Pearl Harbor and even to the Anschluss or Hitler's invasion of Poland and the beginnings of that horrific conflict. Probably more of us remember “VJ Day” and the Cold War which followed.

So when a travel agency recently offered an 18-day hotel-air-land travel package to visit four eastern European cities formerly behind the Iron Curtain, we jumped at the chance. Our trip to Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Berlin provided us with a delightful vacation experience as well as an eye-opening educational perspective on the historic struggle between the fascist German National Socialist (Nazi) Party and the communist former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to dominate and control the societies and governments of central and eastern Europe.

We arrived in Budapest, Hungary on a bright, sunny Thursday afternoon last May after exhausting overnight flights from Tucson with plane changes at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and in Zurich, Switzerland — 14 hours flying time and nine time zones later. We traveled for most of the trip with our friends Dave and Judy Luger of Green Valley. Our travel package included airline reservations, rail tickets between cities and hotel accommodations. We arranged for our own schedule of tours each day.

A look back

Budapest traces its history back to Roman times as the city of Aquincum. It was pillaged by the Mongols in A.D. 1241, became a part of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years and later the co-capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Germany, Hungary was on the losing side in World War I and, by post-war treaty, ceded large portions of its territory to neighbors, was forced to pay substantial post-war reparations, and suffered a limitation on the size of its military. Ultimately, in 1939 Hungary's passionately anti-communist leader, Admiral Miklós Horthy, unwisely withdrew Hungary from the League of Nations, joined the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) and participated in Germany's ill-fated 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.

During the war, German SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann was sent to the Budapest ghetto to facilitate deportation of 437,000 Hungarian Jews to be murdered at the Auschwitz extermination camp. In 1944, a Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in Budapest held 70,000 persons. Twenty thousand died before 50,000 could be liberated by the Red Army in February 1945.

After the Russian occupation, the communist People's Republic of Hungary was established in 1949 under the watchful eye and control of the USSR. In 1956, the Hungarian Uprising lasted for 18 days. Then the Soviet army tanks invaded, crushed the new regime, and arrested and executed its leader Imre Nagy.

After 70 years of political struggle for the hearts and minds of the Hungarians, both the far right Fascist and the far left Communist ideologies were finally rejected by the people and replaced with the Hungarian brand of democracy and freedom. In 1990, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russian control ebbed, the Republic of Hungary was established and free elections were held. In 1999, Hungary joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Modern city

Today, Budapest is a thriving but laid-back European city on the Danube River with an estimated population of 3.3 million. It boasts the second fastest developing urban economy in Europe, the largest regional economy in the European Union, the two largest shopping centers in central and eastern Europe, 4.4 million international visitors each year and the regional headquarters for global firms such as Alcoa, General Motors, GE, Exxon-Mobil, Nissan, Volvo, Saab, Ford, British Telecom, Panasonic, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Bank of China and even the notorious Chinese Huawei Corporation.

Our first challenge on arrival was understanding how and when to use Hungarian Forints (HUFs) and European Union Euros (EURs). For me, it was necessary to always carry the currency converter on my smart phone to be sure I knew how much I was being charged in U.S. dollars. We used Visa and Master Card credit cards whenever possible and as few HUFs as necessary to avoid carrying many forints out of country at the end of our stay.

The second challenge was to master use of the public transit system to get around the city efficiently and quickly. We quickly found that buying all-day transit tickets from conveniently located ticket machines met our needs for subway, tram and bus transport.

We began our first full day with a ride up the Castle Hill funicular and a tour of Buda Castle district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site first completed in 1265 as the royal palace for early Hungarian kings. Later we visited the Hungarian Parliament building (circa 1904); strolled along the embankment beside the “beautiful blue Danube” River (not very blue while we were there); enjoyed a rollicking evening Dinner, Folklore and Operetta Cruise; attended an evening service at the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street (second largest Jewish Synagogue in the world after New York City); splurged on exquisite desserts at the opulent New York Cafe; feasted on Hungarian goulash and chicken paprikash at a variety of local restaurants; and toured Budapest's Central Market Hall for souvenirs and people watching.

Most unforgettable was the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial, located along the river embankment just south of the Parliament Building. Sixty pairs of cast iron shoes set in a stone base are a tribute to the memory of the victims of the ultra-right-wing Arrow Cross Party militiamen who were executed along the river banks. It was here in late 1944 and early 1945, with the Red Army already driving west to liberate Budapest, that thousands of civilians from the Jewish ghetto and around the city were lined up, ordered to take off their shoes, shot and dumped into the Danube. Some historians estimate the number of Jews killed at up to 20,000.

Nearby, in front of the Parliament building in Kossuth Laos Square, is a below-ground memorial to the Hungarian patriots of the October 1956 Revolution against the Russians.

Memories of the terror of World War II, the Holocaust and the later Soviet occupation still haunt modern Budapest.

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