I thought deciding to travel alone to two major cities in Eastern Europe was an act of bravery. I quelled mixed feelings about visiting Vienna (Wien). The city of Mozart appealed to me as an opera buff and amateur flutist, even though Austrians speak the language of Hitler – the language of the Gestapo I feared from watching World War II Holocaust movies while growing up. The pull of Prague (Praha) was its architecture, and the fact that Rick Steves advised speaking English because, like me, the Czechs didn’t like German. I was eager to see Prague’s Jewish Quarter, the oldest in Eastern Europe, and I’d arranged a private tour. That was no small feat considering I had to dodge Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and the High Holy Days when Jewish sites are closed.
I was eager to see Prague’s Jewish Quarter, the oldest in Eastern Europe (This is the Old New Synagogue.)
Then my friend Sara Griffin asked to come. After so much mental preparation to go it solo, could I share a bathroom with another woman for two weeks?
A few hours of ruminating made me realize Sara would be the perfect traveling partner. I’d have future opportunities to travel alone, but sharing this experience with Sara would make it more fun, and more meaningful. We’d met nine years before in my hometown Denver airport during an eight-hour flight delay. A friendship had blossomed by telephone and eventually we’d traveled together: hiking 26 miles over three days in Havasupai Indian Reservation at the Grand Canyon, enjoying a girls’ weekend in a Winter Park cabin, and spending time with her husband and kids at their family’s Utah ranch. In short, she was tested, even though this was her first European trip.
What’s more, Sara and I shared persecuted religious backgrounds, mine Jewish, hers Mormon. She promised to visit all the Jewish sites with me. Having seen The Book of Mormon (not the book – the musical by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone) I promised her I’d be on the lookout for missionaries in black pants and white shirts.
Sara and I shared persecuted religious backgrounds, mine Jewish, hers Mormon.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that allowing Sara into my trip was itself an act of bravery. Instead of proving to myself I could orchestrate the trip on my own, I permitted her to fill in where I was weakest and she most enthusiastic: mastering our AT&T international plan, researching adaptors versus converters, and navigating. Most important, Sara pushed me to be braver about facing my ancestral past than I would have been alone.
At Sara’s suggestion, we included a side trip from Vienna to Mauthausen concentration camp.
At Sara’s suggestion, we included a side trip from Vienna to Mauthausen concentration camp. The camp is situated in pastoral countryside reachable only through complicated travel by subway, bus, and taxi. We serendipitously arrived on the day admission was free because the Austrian president was speaking on the 110th anniversary of the birthday of Leopold Feigl, a former Austrian president and political prisoner who had survived the camp. The place was swarming with dignitaries and undercover police, and some sections were cordoned off, including the crematorium, gas chambers, and barracks. Sara had the chutzpah to slide the temporary chain-link fencing aside a few inches so we could squeeze through and view the exhibition of death camp photos inside the barracks.
Sara slid the temporary chain-link fencing aside so we could squeeze through and view the exhibition of death camp photos inside the barracks.
It was Sara who pleaded with the hard-ass museum-admissions lady to give us a private showing of the English-speaking documentary on the camp. After the movie and the president’s speech, we ventured back into the camp to find the gas chambers and crematorium now unlocked. Sara choked up while reading the international plaques and comments posted outside a gas chamber. I dared to remain inside, gently placing my palms on the cold stone walls, shutting my eyes, and trying to feel any lingering spirits, hoping none remained. My eyes closed, I saw emaciated, hairless bodies with flailing arms and hands clawing at the walls I now touched, as cyanide gas filled the room. I remember you, I whispered in this eerie cemetery of bodiless souls. I remember you.
I saw emaciated, hairless bodies with flailing arms and hands clawing at the walls I now touched. (These are a gas chamber & two ovens from the crematorium.)
We also paid our respects to the Jews in Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), where famous composers are buried: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Strauss (father and son). The headstones in the old Jewish section are overgrown with vines, and the years of death pre-date World War II. Their graves are marked. Their bodies did not become smoke from the crematorium chimney at Mauthausen. These are the lucky ones, I thought.
The headstones in the old Jewish section of Vienna’s Central Cemetery are overgrown with vines, and the years of death pre-date World War II.
In Prague, we toured the Jewish Quarter three times, once from outside the synagogues that comprise the quarter, once from inside after attending Mormon church services with young missionaries we met in Wenceslas Square, and once inside and out with a tour guide.
I gasped while walking inside the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of 77,297 Jewish Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia were arranged on the walls by the towns or villages where they lived, then family names, then first names, then dates of death, disappearance, or deportation. Upstairs, the drawings created by children shipped off to the nearby concentration camp in Terezin moved Sara and me in different ways. She reflected on her own four children, while I realized that, had I lived in 1940s Prague, I could have been sent there, too.
Prague’s old Jewish cemetery was a small plot with tousled headstones marking bodies buried atop each other. A tiny wall separating the cemetery from the building of the Chevra Chadisha (Burial Brotherhood Society) was embedded with broken headstones found on the streets after World War II. Nazis had ripped those headstones from Jewish graves to form pavement for their tanks.
Nazis had ripped these headstones from Jewish graves to form pavement for their tanks.
I hadn’t foreseen that Sara would be both a spiritual and travel guide, or that my pilgrimage would be an act of remembrance, both of what was and what might have been. I was visiting graves and death houses that, had I been born in a different time, in a different place, in a Vienna or Prague, could have been my final destination. Facing that reality was for me the biggest act of bravery.
Jakki Savan is a lawyer and writer who lives in Denver. In addition to Austria and The Czech Republic, her travels have transported her to England, France, Scotland, Israel, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Ireland, and Martinique. Eventually, she plans to bring her travels full circle to Russia, from whence her grandparents immigrated to America prior to World War II.