Last year, I was fortunate enough to travel to three new countries for a city break: Latvia, Czech Republic and Hungary.
On each trip, we spent time exploring the city streets, wandering round the tourist attractions and visiting museums.
One common theme that ran through each trip was history, specifically what happened in each country during the Nazi and Communist occupations.
In the UK, World War Two is a common subject at school, but I knew very little about how countries in Central and Eastern Europe were affected, other than Poland. So to visit some of these places and hear the stories was incredibly affecting. It felt particularly timely, with the political dramas that occurred last year and the rising fear of fascism that many seem to be experiencing.
It was also timely for me personally, as I’m writing a dystopian novel that deals with similar subjects.
But mostly, these places made me think about travel in a different way.
In Riga, we visited the KGB Building, a museum that has been built in the bowels of what was the KGB headquarters in the city, where prisoners were taken for interrogation and execution. The building is still much the same as it was, with crumbling paint and dank cells.
The most frightening thing is to realise that it was still operational in the 1990s, little more than 20 years ago.
In contrast, the House of Terror in Budapest takes a very different approach. Although the museum is located in the same building where prisoners were tortured and killed under the Communist regime, it has been completely renovated.
Rather than presenting the decaying remains of the building, as the museum in Riga does, this museum takes a symbolic approach to the atrocities that occurred within its walls. After buying a ticket, you’re confronted with a three story hall in the centre of the building, containing a tank. On the walls, you can see a mural stretching upwards featuring the faces of those people who suffered and died there.
Walking around the museum, the exhibitions continue to tell the country’s story in the same symbolic way, interspersed with video interviews with survivors. It’s incredibly powerful.
Another example of symbolism in Budapest is a striking sculpture on the banks of the Danube River. A line of metal shoes seem abandoned, lined with candles and the occasional flower. It’s a simple piece of artwork, but it’s all the more moving when you learn that it commemorates the Jews who were shot there during World War Two, made to take off their shoes before their bodies fell into the water.
And in Prague, we were shocked to learn about the brutal treatment of the Czech people during the war, after watching a film about the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, known as the ‘Butcher of Prague.’
For me, experiencing the history of these cities was an eye-opening thing. Over the last year I’ve felt a growing sense of anger, of the need for activism, to fight against some of the world’s injustices in whatever small way I can. These stories only enforce that need.
We may think that we live in a safe country, in a civilised time, but that hatred is never far beneath the surface, if the circumstances are right.
It’s important to look back at historical events like these and learn from them. We need to listen to the stories of the people who were there and feel their weight, to realise that we can’t be complacent about our own safety, and we should care about the safety of others elsewhere.
Because it could just as easily be us there, standing on the banks of a river with a gun in our faces, wondering how it came to this and why nobody stopped it.