The Confederate Monument Thing Again

On this day, when we traditionally celebrate American independence, I’m a little surprised that I’m having to revisit a post that I wrote in 2017 entitled, “Historical Statues: One Solution“. But yes, indeed, the controversy over whether or not to remove confederate statues has reared its ugly head yet again.

That 2017 blog post describes a brilliant solution that the people of Budapest, Hungary came up with to deal with their brutal communist era statues. It’s really quite fascinating, and I hope it’s an idea that can be adopted here. It would allow the statues to still exist, but in an educational context in a museum-like setting where those who don’t want to see them won’t have to. Please do read it and tell me what you think.

But for those of you who don’t click through, I leave you with a few points to ponder:

  • Monuments are not history. They’re the glorification thereof.

  • No child should have to grow up under the shadow of statues of people who thought they should be enslaved.

  • Removing a statue won’t erase the history, and we can and should still learn from that history. Learn, but not deify.

It really is okay to become older and wiser as a society. I promise. We’ll be okay.

Happy Independence Day.

Confederate_Monument_-_E_frieze_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011
Historically absurd.

Check this out, y’all. I wrote a book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Ignaz Semmelweis and His Cadaverous Particles

On this day, 202 years ago (July 1, 1818). Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Budapest, Hungary. Because he was born, billions of us are alive to celebrate that fact. That makes it all the more astounding to me that maybe only one in 10,000 of us even know that he ever existed.

Semmelweis became a doctor in 1844, and specialized in obstetrics in Vienna. As the chief resident at the Vienna General Hospital, he began to notice something very strange and disturbing. There were two maternity clinics at the hospital, and women were dying 2 ½ times more often at one clinic than at the other.

These deaths were attributed to puerperal fever, or childbed fever, which had been around since the 1600’s. (It’s a horrible way to go, involving a great deal of pus. I’ll leave it at that.)

Women were more likely to survive if they gave birth in the street than if they went into the hospital. That reputation was not lost on the public, and women used to beg, on their knees, to be admitted to clinic 2, if they had to be admitted anywhere at all.

Why was this happening? No one knew. And that bothered Semmelweis more than a little.

He began comparing the two clinics, trying to determine the difference between them. The first, more deadly, clinic was staffed by medical students. The second was staffed by students of midwifery.

The second clinic was the more crowded of the two, so these deaths couldn’t be due to crowding. And the discrepancy had nothing to do with climate, because that was the same on both wards. For a time, he was even desperate enough to try to blame it on religious differences, but he got nowhere with that theory.

Then one day in 1847, Semmelweis’ good friend and colleague, Jakob Kolletschka died, and his autopsy showed that what killed him looked identical to puerperal fever. How was that possible? He had been accidentally cut by a med student’s scalpel during a post mortem exam, and he died not long thereafter. What did that have in common with childbirth?

That made Semmelweis realize another difference between the two clinics. The med students often would perform autopsies in the morning, and then interact with the pregnant women in the afternoon. The midwives, on the other hand, did not do autopsies. Semmelweis began to wonder if puerperal fever was the result of some kind of cadaverous particle that was being transferred from the corpses to the pregnant women via the medical students.

It is important to mention here that germ theory was not accepted in Vienna back then. No one understood the importance of sanitizing the wards or washing one’s hands. Women often lay on soiled bed sheets, and doctors would treat them while still wearing aprons bloodied by autopsies.

Semmelweis instituted a policy of washing one’s hands in chlorinated lime, mainly because he noticed that this removed the autopsy odor. No more putrid smell of infection. Perhaps this would remove the cadaverous particles, too.

Lo and behold, the mortality rate dropped by 90%, just like that. He set out to tell the medical world about this. You’d think a drastic reduction in deaths would have everyone jumping on the bandwagon right away, wouldn’t you?

But no. His theory was considered radical. How could a particle from a corpse turn you into a corpse? And it was an insult to doctors everywhere, who did not want to think of themselves as dirty.

Semmelweis’ breakthrough was ignored, rejected, or ridiculed by the medical community at large. During all this, and amidst a heaping helping of political turmoil, he was dismissed from his job and finally was so harassed that he moved back to Budapest.

He continued to achieve positive results everywhere he worked, and yet he was not taken seriously. This, understandably, did not sit well with Semmelweis. He began to fight back, by writing openly hostile letters to obstetricians, calling them irresponsible murderers. He fell into a depression and started drinking.

People began to think he was going nuts, and perhaps he was. In 1865 he was committed to a lunatic asylum after trying to convince people of his breakthrough, to no avail, for 20 years. How heavily it must have weighed on him, watching women die for entirely preventable reasons that whole time.

One of his friends lured him to the asylum under false pretexts. When he realized this, he tried to leave. He was severely beaten by the guards and thrown into a straitjacket. Two weeks later, he died of septic shock, most likely from the wounds he obtained during that beating. What a bitter irony. He was 47 years old.

It’s hard to believe that people were willing to overlook the fact that, after he left each one of his clinics, mortality rates skyrocketed again. A few decades later, Louis Pasteur further developed the germ theory of disease, finally explaining the actual science behind it, and people began to realize that perhaps Semmelweis had a point.

The home where Semmelweis was born in Budapest has now been converted into a museum and library to honor him. A university was named after him in the same city, as was a clinic in Vienna and a hospital in Hungary. His face is on an Austrian commemorative coin. A minor planet was named after him. He has his own Hungarian postage stamp. He has even become a Google Doodle.

Per Wikipedia, there’s a name for “a certain type of human behavior characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beleifs, or paradigms.” It’s called the Semmelweis Reflex. How’s that for a legacy?

Anyway, I was thinking of this tragic man as I washed my hands for the umpteenth time today. How proud he would be of all of us who are continuing to battle against our current pandemic. How surprised he would be that so many people are turning those efforts political and resisting these efforts to save lives.

Next time you wash your hands, say, “Thank you, Ignaz Semmelweis!” He struggled his whole adult life to get us to see the importance of these things. Please don’t let his efforts be in vain.

Semmelweis_statue

Do you enjoy my random musings? Then you’ll love my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

 

A Mental Walkabout

Once upon a time, I’d visit a different foreign country every two years. Those were the days. Now, 60 percent of my income goes toward mortgage and utilities, and I don’t see myself ever being able to leave the country again. That breaks my heart, because travel is my reason for being.

Because of this, I’ve become really adept at doing mental walkabouts. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly what it was like to walk amongst the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I can also explore the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells of all the amazing places I’ve been. I can transport myself back to the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato, Mexico, and sample, once again, the Hungarian Goulash in Budapest.

The one percent may make it financially impossible for me to explore the world anymore, but they can’t take away my memories. Only dementia or death can do that. I’m terrified of dementia. Death, from my perspective, is simply another way to travel. (Not that I’m in any hurry to hop on that plane.)

Until then, I’ll travel in my mind. I’ll ride bicycles along the canals in Utrecht, Holland, and swim in the crystal blue Adriatic Sea. I’ll snack on fresh bread and local cheese in the Swiss Alps. No matter how dire my financial straits become, as the saying goes, I’ll always have Paris.

IMG_1534
Me, in Venice, with some feathered friends.

Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Historical Statues: One Solution

At a time when the US seems to be struggling with what to do with its Confederate statues and memorials, I can’t help but remember my trip to Budapest back in 2006. What an amazing city, with a lot of very tragic history. They were occupied by German forces in WWII, forcing them to embrace Fascism even as the Nazis were applying internal terror to control the people. So it’s understandable that the Soviets might have seemed like liberators to them at first.

The Soviet Red Army occupied the city in 1945. During the peace talks, Great Britain and the US basically gave the country over to Stalin. After much torture, spying, interrogations and fear brought down upon the citizenry for years on end, in 1956, a student-inspired revolution took place, and while it relieved some of the societal pressure, it ultimately failed. The control finally started crumbling in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the last Soviet occupying soldier left Budapest. By then, all the soviet era statues had been joyfully pulled down.

And lo and behold, despite the absence of these statues in the public squares, Hungary’s dark history has not been erased any more than ours would be without Robert E. Lee gazing at us in our city parks. In fact, the people of Budapest handled their statues in a brilliant way. They dragged them all to one location, and turned that into an opportunity to teach about their past oppression in the hopes that it will never, ever happen again. They created Memento Park.

I remember standing among these monuments, and thinking how intimidating they must have been in their heyday. Some of them are 20 feet tall. All of them make the men look strong, the women look hard-working and dedicated, and for the most part, the people all look like anonymous and mindless machines. It must have been terrifying to pass them every day, knowing that’s what your government expected you to see, feel, and believe.

Now, gathered in an educational park, lined up like so many dominoes of long-dead subjugation, they seem rather pathetic and powerless. Children climb on them. People take pictures in front of them while they make funny faces. But mostly, they learn that none of us should go backward, into an era of the exaltation of hate and control.

History shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s what books and teachers are for. Monuments are not history. They are for glorification, and should be removed from our public spaces as our society becomes older and hopefully wiser. Learn from these silent statues, taken down from their shining pedestals. Learn, but don’t deify.

I hope we follow suit in the US. The time is long overdue. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with some photos of me in Memento Park in Budapest.

Check this out, y’all. I wrote a book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

The Best Museum I’ve Ever Seen

Walking down Andrassy Street in Budapest at high noon can be a chilling experience regardless of the temperature. It’s a beautiful historic boulevard with gorgeous architecture, and you have enjoyed every bit of your Budapest experience up to this point. The food, the people, everything about Budapest is lovely. And then a shadow crosses your path, and it says “Terror”. In English. In big, block letters. And that’s by design. You look up at the building that has created this word and realize that in a not so subtle way, it has also created that feeling within you. It’s grey. It’s austere. It’s imposing. It’s Budapest’s House of Terror, the best museum I’ve ever encountered in all my travels.

terror

This building used to be Nazi headquarters during their brief occupation, and then became the headquarters of a Communist terror organization for 40 years. Untold numbers of people were tortured and killed in this building. It’s a part of history unpleasant to recall, but one which should never be forgotten.

You take a deep breath as you enter because you get the feeling you will need it. When you walk into this building, you are greeted by a huge Russian Tank that isn’t dwarfed by the cathedral ceilings. What does dwarf it, however, are the rows upon rows upon rows of photographs of the people who entered this building and never came out again. It renders you silent. And the eerie music makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up.

Terror Tank

From there you go up to the top floor and work yourself down to the scary basement, which was the one place on earth you did not want to find yourself in that era. That basement looms in your future the entire time you’re in the place.

What is so incredibly impressive about this museum is that it isn’t row upon row of cases of artifacts and dry explanations. Let’s be honest. Halfway through a museum of that type, you tend to stop reading, stop learning, and you just look at the displays and move on. But this museum isn’t only about informing you. It’s about making you feel like you were there. It uses a variety of displays, including video, abstract art, and actual artifacts, so you are never bored.

There are a lot of videos with English subtitles that show people who have survived this building, people who haven’t, and what was actually happening in Hungary during these occupations. There is a room filled with communist propaganda posters that make you really feel how absurd and yet how powerful and scary the adherents to this movement were. Each room has flyers with an English explanation of the display, which is very helpful and informative.

One room had run out of flyers, however, and I wish it hadn’t. The walls were made of these white rubbery bricks. What did they represent? Rendered human fat? I guess I’ll never know, and that made it all the more chilling.

Another room holds banks of listening devices, and really brings home the fact that you couldn’t say anything to anyone, anywhere, ever. They were listening, and they did not have your best interests at heart. How exhausting to have to live under that level of paranoia just to survive.

IMG_1390

As you go downward, ever downward, you are treated to a display of the puppet court that could sentence you to death just for being Jewish, and/or intellectual, and/or an enemy of the State. You really sense the feeling of helplessness.

And then you arrive in the basement. The ceilings are low and feel as if they are trying to crush you. Everything is grey. You see the labyrinth of tiny suffocating cells and the torture chambers, and you can almost hear the sounds of people screaming from years ago. As I peeked into one room, which was designed for a type of torture so horrible that I can’t even bring myself to describe it to you, I was hit by this wall of terror so tangible that I nearly sank to my knees. I had to leave. I mean, I HAD to get out of there.

Perhaps the most profound and meaningful experience in that museum is leaving it. You have been transformed. You have gotten a little tiny taste of what life must have been like under a terrorist government. The fear, the futility, the inevitability of it all, the hopelessness, all of that resides within that building. And then you walk outside into the beautiful city of Budapest and see the hustle and bustle, the variety, the joy that is that place, and you are struck by the fact that they’ve overcome. That it’s possible to survive.

As long as you never forget, it’s possible to be free.