Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.
All my adult life, I have felt a burden to live more than one life. I am a child of survivors and a mourner of many who did not survive. In 1944, my grandparents and more than 700 others were murdered in a little-known massacre in Kremnicka, Slovakia.
A Slovak court has commuted a death sentence against Laszlo Csatary, a war criminal whom Slovakia wants extradited from Hungary for his complicity in murdering thousands of Jews.
"Sorry, children. I’m not going to jeopardize my life for your father’s money.” The Christian forester smuggling three Jewish children across the border from Poland to Slovakia had stopped abruptly, wished them luck and told them to keep walking. But Gloria Ungar — then Gitta Nagel — gripped his arm, promising that her father would make him very rich if he continued. She, her younger brother Nathan and her cousin were wending their way through a pitch-black forest. “It was terrifying,” Gloria recalled; she knew they wouldn’t make it alone. Her cousin had broken her ankle, and Nathan was crying that he couldn’t walk anymore. Plus the Germans were scanning the forest with floodlights, siccing attack dogs and then shooting whenever they saw a shadow. The children threw themselves against trees whenever the floodlights came near.
In 1989, on the eve of the fall of communism, the American poet Jerome Rothenberg published a powerful series of poems called "Khurbn" that dealt with the impact of the Holocaust on Eastern Europe.
Once we declared here that we would visit Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, we expected people to say, "How quaint! How interesting! What an unusual place to visit." Instead, we invariably heard, "Why Bratislava?" And in Prague, when we announced our next stop, the reaction was, "Why do you want to go there?" Amazingly, even in beautiful Bratislava itself, residents asked in wonder and bemusement, with no hint of being impolite: "Why would you want to come here?"
Folks in Bratislava are not used to tourists. It is not, as they say in the travel trade, a "destination." No tourist buses crowd the streets like in Prague. No Israelis swarm here. And even if tourists come, we were told, they are ultra-Orthodox Jewish tourists visiting Budapest who take a taxi to Bratislava for a quick visit to the tomb of the revered early 19th century sage Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer), and then scoot back to Budapest without so much as a backward glance.