Monday, December 17, 2012


When Nancy and I left for a ten day river cruise on the Danube a few weeks ago we were hoping to get away from the pervasive violence and political tension in the world and the increasing commercialism and emptiness of the American Christmas season. We succeeded, but only in part.
The Danube was every bit as beautiful as we’d imagined it to be. From the 6th, when we arrived in Budapest, to the 15th, when we left Passau, the Viking Njord, our floating hotel, slipped effortlessly from city to city.
In Budapest we were treated to the incredible food and wine, a spectacular view of the Chain Bridge between Buda and Pest at night, the galleries of the Fine Arts Museum, and the sights and sounds of the Great Central Market.
The ship then meandered from Budapest to Bratislava, Slovakia, then to Vienna, then on to the small villages of Durnstein and Melk in Austria’s spectacular Wachau Valley. Each stop brought new and pleasant experiences. The mulled honey wine we sampled at the Christmas Market in Bratislava was to die for. We brought a bottle home as protective insulation against Kansas’s cold winter winds. In Vienna we rode the subway, visited the modern art and Jewish museums, and sampled mini sandwiches and tiny mugs of Austrian beer at a local deli whose name now escapes me. In Durnstein we were graciously given the gift of a pipe organ concert at the town’s beautiful cathedral. In Melk we toured the Benedictine abbey and cathedral. I’ve never seen so much gold in one place in my life.
We spent our last two days in Linz, Austria and Passau, Germany. The day in Linz was particularly pleasant. We took a leisurely stroll along an outdoor pedestrian mall and Christmas market, occasionally stopping to make a purchase or two. By the time we got back to the ship we had a small bag of clothing, a hand painted Christmas ornament, a pair of mittens and a wooden Nutcracker doll for a little girl Nancy knows, and a small straw hedgehog that I suspect will keep our cats amused. In Passau we spent a couple of hours touring the city, including a gingerbread making demonstration, our last sips of mulled wine, and a tour of one of the city’s most spectacular cathedrals. As with the cathedral in Melk, the gold leaf was everywhere. In addition, the frescoes on the ceiling were mind boggling. It took a father and son over fifty years to create them.
We’re home now and I’m reflecting on the trip. More often than not along the way we felt a warm, peaceful feeling. I think Europe transmits that sense quite well. But, we never could quite escape the world’s realities. A few days into the cruise we got word of a mall shooting on Oregon. Then on Friday we heard the news from Connecticut. We were stunned.
It’s now Monday and I’m hearing the explanations. Few of them seem satisfactory to me. There’s more to it than mental illness and misunderstood young people. Will more mental health counseling fix things? I’m not so sure. Will eliminating guns solve the problem? I don’t own one so they can take all 300 million of them away as far as I’m concerned, but it won’t solve the problem.
 It’s written that evil is always “crouching at the door.” It seeps through society’s cracks. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s there, often hiding in the most unlikely places. Nancy and I saw this quite clearly in Budapest. There’s a very simple memorial on the banks of the Danube, not far from one of Budapest’s beautiful cathedrals. There, fifty or sixty pairs of shoes once worn by Budapest’s Jews stand as stark witnesses to the evil man is all too often willing to inflict on his fellow man. In late 1944, thousands of Jews were marched to the riverbank and shot to death. Before their bodies were dumped in the river the Nazis took their shoes. The logic was as grisly as it was impeccable. Leather was a very valuable commodity and couldn’t be wasted.
In Budapest, guns were the transmitters. But, evil doesn’t need just a gun. Zyklon-B was a gas. In the Ukraine, depriving Kulaks of food was the tool. In Cambodia’s killing fields all it took was plastic bags to suffocate millions to death.
In the end, I think any solutions to our violence problems lie in the human heart. We can work against it, but I suspect evil will be crouching at the door as long as there are men. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed, The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

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