Recently Karen and I cruised and biked along the Danube plus three days in Vienna just days ahead of the rains that have temporarily flooded the Passau, Germany port where we embarked. The scenery was more beautiful than I expected, and the people’s impressive triumph over atrocities even more inspirational.
On the riverboat we joined 96 other tourists, German speakers mostly. We shared a love of biking even though silence after my frequent attempts to speak English with German speakers reminded me we didn’t share a language.
No matter, we enjoyed paved bike-paths through invisible national borders to pass idyllic villages of scrubbed-clean pastoral, sturdy homes rising within green forests.
In Austria we toured the Baroque estate created for Prince Eugene of Savoy, considered one of the greatest military minds in Europe after defeating French, Ottoman and Bavarian armies three centuries ago. He used his wealth to serve the arts and agriculture.
Those beautiful images became linked to respect for the people’s resiliency during hundreds of years of repression. Repression such as the Iron Curtain that collapsed only 23 years ago, memorialized with a monument listing the names of 400 people who died fleeing for freedom.
In beautiful Bratislavia, Slovakia our college-aged guide was barely older than her 20-year-old democracy. I grew up seeing Czechoslovakia on maps, not realizing the Slovaks have lived under a Nazi protectorate, communist state, Soviet socialist republic and a federal democratic republic with the Czechs until they peacefully separated.
Our Budapest bike-tour guide led us through a modern city and a central park with spas fed by thermal springs. We bumped over bustling cobblestone streets and saw elegant residents arrive for a concert.
These were the same streets where in my lifetime roaming Nazi death-squads assassinated 600,000 Jews in the last six months of WWII, Hungarians slaughtered local Germans in reprisals that have been formally regretted only in the last two years and where students began an ill-fated overthrow of the communist government in 1956.
We rode bikes through Vienna to see the architecture, palaces, statues, blooming flowers, the Lipizzaner Stallions, but our guide also pointed out the monument to the Soviet soldier saying 60,000 died to liberate Vienna and the memorial artwork to end all wars, including a kneeling Jew forced by Nazis to scrub cobblestone streets. We learned later that all 23 synagogues were destroyed during that era.
Nevertheless Karen and I were excited as we arrived in Vienna for three days after our cruise ended. We heard classical music everywhere, even on the sidewalk in an audience watching a live performance of the opera Carmen on a giant LCD screen on the side of the State Opera House. We watched the Lipizzaner Stallions practice, toured the Hofburg winter palace, dined at two fine restaurants recommended by a Viennese friend, smelled blossoms in the Volksgarten and visited art treasures at the Albertina museum.
In the Albertina we encountered a major exhibition by Gottfried Helnwein whose art is a protest against violence and war.
“Over the past 30 years he has become an art superstar,” said Gerry McCarthy in The Sunday Times.
Helnwein had to discover by himself the horrific images we were experiencing, because he grew up in Vienna at a time adults and schools were silent about Nazi atrocities.
“Helnwein searched for a way to defend himself against society’s regimentation, coercion and discipline and found art was the only answer,“ said the Albertina in its description of his work.
I can relate to their times of silence. My family lives with sadness we keep silent about. My dad was regrettably silent about his experiences in China in WWII. But their tragedies are deep national lesions that could make my conscience bleed. Especially with my preference to ride my bike along the Columbia River and ignore the sadness I feel at our wars and drones killing innocent people.
Despite what they’ve experience, the people we visited have tenaciously rebuilt meaningful lives and communities.
Luckily, we can travel to get inspired by the resiliency of other people and rededicate ourselves to restoring our values and preserving our treasures.