June 19, 2013

Balkan Adventure: Legacy of Courage

In the past several years, I've had the opportunity to read several Holocaust novels. Each one gives me added perspective to the various ways humans handle trials.Some are strong, some are smart, and unfortunately, some give up hope. I'd like to think that if war happened to me that I would be one of the happy people. The ones who keep their own spirits high as well as those of others around them. Even in the sad stories, I like the ones about people who kept their wits about them when under high stress and helped devise escape plans or relieved intense suffering. 

None of us know how we would handle a particular challenge until we are in the middle of it. I've been surprised at my own thoughts and actions during difficult experiences. Sometimes for the positive and sometimes not. I think most of us make lousy decisions if we're tired or hungry and especially if we're in pain. There are some who rise above the physical nature of spiritual and intellectual battles. I want to be one of those people.

We just visited the Red Cross concentration camp in Nis, Serbia. Many thousands died here and tens of thousands were here for just a short time before being transferred to other camps. The room in the photo was a holding place for about 150 prisoners. They slept on the floor with a bit of straw between them and the concrete. They were let out for 15 minutes in the morning to do their personal business. They also got a break in the afternoon but weren't allowed to relieve themselves. I can't even imagine the stank that must have been there. Or what it took to clean it up. Or how some survived such conditions.

What I like about the Nis camp is that about hundred and fifty Holocaust prisoners escaped. One third of them died in the process...but two thirds lived to help the resistance effort. I admire their courage and the strength it took to overcome their captors. 

While in Nis, we also visited the Skull Tower. Serbs were under Turkish rule (Ottoman Empire) for many centuries. Their first uprising in 1809 resulted in thousands dying. Out of those nearly 1000 of them were decapitated, their faces skinned and stuffed with cotton and sent back to Turkey as evidence of how well the occupiers were keeping resistance to a minimum. The Turks then took the skulls and made them into a tower and placed it along the road to Constantinople as a reminder of what would happen if the Serbs tried to rebel again.

I don't know about you, but if one of my family members was brutally killed and his head was sent to Turkey as a war prize and skull formed the basis of a tower, I certainly wouldn't take that sitting down. It turns out I'm like the Serbs of Nis, who also weren't intimidated like the Turks had thought when they built the tower.

The Serbs eventually freed themselves and have an amazing, if gruesome, reminder of the precious cost those who fought gave for that liberty. They built a monument around the tower to preserve it for later generations.

I'm grateful for my family members who fought in the American Revolution for my liberty. I pray to have the strength to face my own trials, whether personal or as a part of a family or larger group, with such courage. It wasn't always comfortable or pain-free. They have left me with a strong legacy to live up to. 

I leave you today with the words from one of the signs in the Skull Tower monument:
In 1833, on his way back from his travels to the East, a well known French poet, LaMartine, was passing through the city of Nis, and, shaken at the sight of the Skull Tower, he wrote these words:
I came into the plain near Nis. The sun was scorching. One mile before the city I saw a wide white tower rising in the midst of the plain, glittering as a parish marble. The path led me to it. I came closer, sat down in its shade to take a rest and have some sleep. As soon as I sat down, I looked up towards the monument and saw that its walls, which had seemed to me as if made of marble or a white stone, were made of human skulls and these human faces, skinned off and whitened with rain and sun, glued with a bit of sand and lime, formed an arc that protected me from sun. On some of them what little hair remained, was fluttering in the wind like a lichen or a moss.
Strong and fresh wind blowing from the mountain, penetrated the many cavities in the heads, faces and skulls, making a sad and pained whining sound, I was told that those were the skulls of the Serbs killed in the last uprising for the freedom of Serbia.
My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men, whose cut off heads made the corner stone of the independence of their homeland.
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