In an intriguing tour, Pamela Wade gains insight into the horror inflicted on Europe during World War II

Budapest, Krakow, Auschwitz, Warsaw, Berlin: there must be more tactful routes into Germany. My Insight Vacations tour was labelled "Highlights of Eastern Europe", and cruising in the luxury coach from Hungary in a circuit through Slovakia, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic and ending in Austria, we certainly saw beautiful cities and lovely countryside, enjoyed plenty of singing and dancing, and had some very jolly evenings around various dinner tables. There was definitely fun.

But even I, with my abysmal grasp of European history, realised from the start that war, and in particular World War II, would be a major theme of the two-week tour. I expected it to add an interesting and educational element; for Shaun though, it was the whole reason he was here. Aged about 30, he had joined his parents on this trip to make a connection with his Jewish heritage. Raised secularly by his Jewish father and Catholic mother in California, just 10km from Disneyland, he had reached the stage of wondering how different things might have been for him. It didn't take long to find out.

On our first day the local guide, Agnes, set the scene on a tour of Budapest: "We've had hardly any peace in our history," she says, referring to Hungary's multiple wars of independence with invaders from all directions, and pointing out the chillingly-named House of Terror as we drove past.

Returning later in our free time, we worked our way down through four floors telling the story of the building's 20-year occupation, first by the Hungarian Nazis, and then the Soviet secret police. It was a grim journey, from the swastikas and SS uniforms at the top, past the glass cases full of ordinary items - pliers, chains, cigarettes - that were put to far from ordinary use, to the cells in the basement where the torture and executions took place.


Along the way, an excellent multi-media displays filled in the details, including the persecution, deportation to labour camps, and murder of thousands of Hungarian Jews, many of whom were shot on the banks of the nearby Danube, toppling conveniently into the icy river: they are remembered by a monument of 60 pairs of shoes along the water's edge.

A day's drive away across the peaceful, pretty countryside of Slovakia, we entered Poland, where Krakow sits beside a wide sweep of the Vistula River. An ancient walled town dominated by a huge cathedral and castle, its cobbled streets and squares are delightful to wander around - but here too Shaun's back-story continued.

Across the river is the old Jewish ghetto, centred on a large open square where lines of bronze dining chairs are a silent reminder of a cruel deception: Jewish families tricked into bringing their worldly goods when they were "resettled" to the ghetto, in the belief that they would still need them. Many were killed here or rounded up to be sent to concentration camps.

Just a couple of blocks away is Oskar Schindler's Enamel Dish Factory, made famous by the movie Schindler's List, and now a world-class museum of the German occupation of Krakow. Trailing round it behind Shaun's family, I was both horrified and fascinated by the displays, as much theatre as exhibit, with video, voice testimonies, reconstructions, artefacts and symbolism. It's dramatic, artistic, interactive, imaginative and thorough; no-one could fail to be moved by it. In the office where Schindler's original desk faces an installation listing the names of all 1200 Jews he saved, Shaun and his parents were more than moved: they were astonished, having discovered their own, unusual, surname on the list. "We had no idea!" Shaun gasped. "I'm going to follow this up when we get home."

One Jewish boy to escape Krakow's ghetto was director Roman Polanski, and in Warsaw we would reference his movie The Pianist, which featured the Jewish Ghetto Uprising - but first we stopped at Auschwitz. On a suitably grey and sombre day we walked beneath the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign over the gateway and followed Monika, whose grandfather had been a prisoner here, through the neat brick buildings with their ghastly contents. Poles, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war also died here, but Jews made up 90 per cent of the 1,100,000 people exterminated at Auschwitz, most of them in the gas chambers. A number like that is hard to grasp; but that they were "people like us" was made clear by the heaped piles of spectacles, suitcases and shoes - 43,000 of them, including children's - that Monika led us past.

We followed her along a corridor lined with the framed photographs of people in striped uniforms, each labelled with their dates of birth, arrival at Auschwitz, and death. Some looked defiant, some fearful, others were automatically smiling for the camera. I stopped to face Helena Kowalkczyk, her hair cropped short, features strong, staring back with disdain: she lasted less than a month, and I wondered how she died. Perhaps she was punished for insolence by being hung from a post by her wrists behind her back, and then, with dislocated shoulders and no good for work, shot in the bare courtyard between buildings 10 and 11; or hanged; or gassed. We saw all of these places, listened to Monika, took it all in; and Shaun shrugged, fatalistic. "If I'd been here then, I would have been killed. I'd be dead too."

Warsaw has the youngest Old Town in Europe, 80 per cent of the city destroyed by the Germans, but faithfully reconstructed and now looking as lovely and medieval as it ever did. The streets are full of statues and monuments, however, and no-one forgets. One of the most striking monuments depicts the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans: desperate, brave and hopeless. "We fight to the last drop of blood," says Yolanta, who guided us here, telling us that Poland's national tree is the weeping willow. And then we drove to Berlin.

By this stage, however, we'd learned from Karin, our tour director and, fortunately for us, also a history graduate, how throughout Eastern Europe's long and complicated history, almost every nation had taken its turn as both aggressor and victim.


Now we heard how Germany is no exception - apart, of course, from the Third Reich. Even Shaun was impressed by the frank honesty of the Topography of Terror Museum, an open-air storyboard display of Hitler's career in the basement of the remains of the SS and Gestapo headquarters; while at the Berlin Wall Museum there was ample evidence that people here had suffered, too.

Our visit to Dresden also helped to balance our perceptions: this time it was the British and Americans causing 25,000 civilian deaths, when this historic cultural centre was reduced to rubble in the 1945 air raids and subsequent firestorm. Here, in this city thronging with tourists of all nationalities and again full of beauty, life and colour, it became clear to us that in European history, as elsewhere, there is no black and white. We also understood why the tour company's name is Insight.

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GETTING THERE: Fly with Etihad Airways through Melbourne and Abu Dhabi to Munich then fly or take the train to Budapest.

DETAILS: The 14-day highlights of Eastern Europe escorted tour is priced from $3899 a person twin share (land only) taking in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria. Departure dates available until October. Price includes airport transfers, tour director, luxury coach transport with extended leg-room, premium hotels, sightseeing, breakfast daily and some dinners.


Pamela Wade travelled to Eastern Europe courtesy of Insight Vacations and Etihad Airways.