Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Scent of Roses by Kathleen Bittner Roth

Welcome back to History Undressed, our regular first Tuesday blogger and author, Kathleen Bittner Roth! Kathleen Bittner Roth! 


by Kathleen Bittner Roth

Budapest, Hungary became my home six years ago. This expat is forever tied to the U.S., but I have felt compelled to live in other parts of the world and experience a country’s history and heritage. I’ll start with a trip outside the city—my journey to Krakow, Poland.

Keleti Train Station, Budapest

My friend and I boarded a train to Krakow from the Keleti Train Station in Budapest. The facility, built in 1881, was considered the most lavish station in Europe at the time, and is still beautiful today. How novel—a slumber party aboard a sleeper train, and we’ll arrive first thing in the morning, fresh and ready to explore Krakow and its surroundings.
Near dusk, and about an hour outside of Budapest, a sweet scent of roses enveloped us. Bushes laden with lush, powdery-pink blooms appeared for miles beside the tracks, so thick it seemed as though delicate, tinted clouds had fallen from the sky. I have never seen such a sight. We closed our eyes and breathed in the intoxicating perfume that swept through the train, feeling as though we floated on a fragrance created exclusively for us.

Then a jarring thought gripped me: My God, we’re riding the very rails that carried Jews, Gypsies, and political prisoners beyond Krakow to Auschwitz and Birkenau!
Hundreds of thousands of innocents on their way to their deaths. Hundreds of people packed in each car—women, men and children cramped so tightly together they were forced to stand the entire trip with no food, water or toilets. Even the dead and dying could not fall in the crush. Suddenly, the small compartment we occupied didn’t seem so cramped.
And what of the roses?
Had these fragrant flowers lined the tracks back then? After all, wild roses can regenerate for decades. I choked back tears, and turned to my friend whose countenance told me she held similar thoughts.
“Do we really want to visit Auschwitz?” I asked her.
We grew silent for a long while as we gazed at the blur of pink, and breathed a scent no longer light and sweet, but suddenly heavy and funereal. Then, strange as it may seem, we came to the conclusion that we had to honor those who traveled these tracks before us by remaining focused on their plight during our train ride, and commit to visiting the camps upon our arrival. What would our decision produce? Would it heal any lost souls? Would it heal us? We didn’t know, but we felt fractured, scarred by the past, and compelled to see our journey through to the end.

Eventually, we left the roses behind and traveled for a long while beside a lovely river. We didn’t know which river, but the countryside was beautiful. Bucolic. I wondered if the farmers who lived alongside this lazy river back then, or the people in these tiny villages, knew what horrors the trains carried.
Had anyone realized they were death trains?
Had anyone ever wandered close enough to the tracks to hear the wailings of the forsaken?
Had there been any cries to even be heard at that stage of the journey? After all, the trains were nothing more than windowless cattle cars, their doors nailed shut once the people were packed inside, and the only light to be had was what seeped through cracks in the boards.
Interior of boxcar used to transport Holocaust victims

Dear God, how could this have happened?
While my friend did fairly well with sleeping in her little bunk, I slept fitfully. I awoke once feeling disoriented. For a moment, as the clickety-clack of wheels against rails filled my ears, I didn’t know if I was on a train some sixty six years ago or now. I felt like a dark-haired teenager, confused and wondering where we were going, and what and why everything was happening. It was almost as though I had inculcated a miasmic memory that still hovered above the tracks. I came fully awake feeling desolate. I could barely breathe. I curled up on the other end of the bed, next to the window, and gulped in fresh air until my racing heart found some semblance of normalcy.
But my mind refused to wander elsewhere.
Hundreds of thousands of people rode these very rails to their deaths. What were they thinking? How were they feeling? A great sob welled up in my chest, one that wouldn’t release—at least not yet.
Had the guards and engineers aboard those trains known what was happening? Had they known these people were to be worked until they dropped or would be gassed within hours of arrival if they were too old, too young or infirm? Did they know that any twins or ‘little people’ aboard would be used for hideous experiments by the death camp’s macabre Dr. Josef Mengele, ironically known as The Angel of Death? Or were these workers kept naive, only informed of their own jobs, and they saw nothing beyond where the train disappeared from sight? I would tend to think so, since it would have compromised the Nazi program of creating an Aryan society of healthy blue-eyed blonds had word leaked out of what they were up to.
Suddenly, I had a deep sense that for whatever reason, I was meant to ride this train, that I was meant to have these experiences. That I was meant to know and understand what the Hungarians had suffered through (Hungarian Jews comprised the greatest number sent to Auschwitz, but don’t forget the Gypsies and political prisoners—nuns, priests, businessmen, housewives. Any Hungarian labeled a spy became a political prisoner to be gotten rid of).
I’ve learned a great deal about the history in this part of the world, through my travels and by meeting Hungarians who have their histories to share. I have a story in mind that I hope will honor those who were taken from their homes in Budapest. I have four books to complete first, and then the story begins.

Kathleen Bittner Roth thrives on creating passionate stories featuring characters who are forced to draw on their strength of spirit to overcome adversity and find unending love. Her own fairy tale wedding in a Scottish castle led her to her current residence in Budapest, Hungary, considered one of Europe’s most romantic cities. However, she still keeps one boot firmly in Texas and the other in her home state of Minnesota. A member of Romance Writers of America®, she was a finalist in the prestigious Golden Heart® contest. Find Kathleen on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Pinterest and www.kathleenbittnerroth.com.

PORTRAIT OF A FORBIDDEN LADY is book two in Those Magnificent Malverns series: A young widow returns to her childhood home after a forced absence and faces her first and only love, but despite their powerful attraction, danger compels her to remain his forbidden lady.  ORDER YOUR COPY!

THE SEDUCTION OF SARAH MARKS is book one in Those Magnificent Malverns series: When a proper Victorian miss awakens next to a handsome stranger, she must rely on the man's benevolence as she struggles to regain her memory and hold onto her heart. ORDER YOUR COPY!

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