Srebrenica

In Eastern Bosnia, Mak made his way to what had once been a spa town. People traveled to Srebrenica to relax and enjoy themselves. It was built next to an old silver mine, on a single stretch of road. In 1990, 6,000 people lived there; a quarter of them Serbian, the rest were Muslims.

Unfortunately, Srebrenica was in an area claimed by the Serbs. The Serbs were intent on bringing down the community, or at least the Muslim aspect of it “When they began their campaign of ethnic cleansing here, a well organised local movement began offering strong resistance.” (Mak 795) From this hardship rose a Muslim resistance, led by Naser Oric who had once been a bodyguard to Milosevic. In a campaign of violence, Oric went around the countryside of Srebrenica and murdered Serb families. He also plundered the food and resources that the Serbs had stored in their homes and towns. When the Serbian blockade of Srebrenica these stores of food would allow them to survive.

Both sides lost many people and the animosity grew between them. The Serbs surrounded Srebrenica, but were postponed from massacre by a UN envoy who declared the town a demilitarized safe haven. However, “Later it became clear that, by that point, all parties involved had actually given up on the enclave. ” (Mak 796).

Eventually the troops pulled out and Serb troops led by General Ratko Mladic steamrolled the town. When they had taken the town one of the worst human rights failures in history took place (The Guardian). Thousand of Muslims in Srebrenica were systimatically eliminated by the Serbians, an act that would soon be referred to as Genocide.

Himmlerstadt

Himmlerstadt has one of the darkest legacies of any place in Europe. Himmlerstadt, what used to be Zamosc in Poland is now a tourist site. Not for gorgeous vistas, nor some natural landmark. Tourists are in Himmlerstadt to visit Auschwitz, the most famous of the Nazi concentration camps.

After Nazi troops arrived in Zamosc, deportations began and a second cultural wave was introduced. The town was “Germanized,” traces of the past were destroyed and outlawed. The original inhabitants of the town were deported en mass; many of the Poles died in transit to the Belzec death camp. The SS took over and created what would become one of the most brutal and effective concentration camps in Europe.

Auschwitz is now a rusted shell of its old self. As Mak put it, “The barbed wire crumbled to dust in your hand.” (Mak 408) The items of victims are scattered about the grounds, and tickets are sold so that tourists may “experience” the camp. In the journal of the camp physician there is a detachment from the events he took part in. He writes of his food, of his divorce, but hardly of the prisoners being sent to their deaths.

At the camp, Mak spoke to Adriana Warno, a ticket taker. She spoke of the ways that people lived so near to Auschwitz, while suppressing the memories of what had happened there. “But no one thinks of that anymore. If you did, you’d go crazy. And you have to live your life, and life here is hard enough as it is.” (Mak 408) She also spoke about the people riding the tragedies of the victims of Auschwitz, “the women with tambourines, gurus who come to drive out evil spirits, those who came to deal with past lives… They’ve never suffered for a moment themselves… It’s enough to make you sick.” (Mak 409)

Riga

In March, after a train ride from St. Petersburg, Mak arrived in Riga. The capital of Latvia, Riga has had both its share of hardship and terror. The buildings reflect three different periods and ways of life; some are the pre-Bolshevik buildings of the Jews, easily recognizable. The drab buildings of the soviets are also here, remnants of upheaval and death. Finally, the middle of the city stands as testimony to western welfare; it is bright, shiny, and new.

During WWI, much of the town was German controlled and in 1918 the Bolsheviks gained control. Courthouses that still stand were used to try and execute civilians. This went on until the Bolsheviks were in turn chased out by German property owners and Baltic nationalists who soon began the execution of the Bolsheviks. In the central prison at Riga, at least 50 executions took place every morning. This pattern of death would continue for many years in Riga, including when the Gestapo took over in the 1940′s.

In the old prison, Mak finds the padded torture cells and the picture of a young Latvian freedom fighter who was murdered. The buildings and the pictures are a testament to the bloody history of Riga, though, Mak says, Riga has a short memory. What has become a sparkling example of the new was once a place where Jews were persecuted and killed in mass. A place where the Nazi army was welcomed. A place where young Latvians were shot and killed for their country.

Yes, it is a place of harrowing memories, but Riga is also the home to a bright optimism. Museums exist to document the tragedies, but they also document the heroes. Riga is a place where people are proud to join Europe and the future. The city, as Mak sees it, is transforming and leaving behind, but not forgetting, a terrifying past while building a better future.