Getting to know someone in college who had escaped from Hungary in the 1956 uprising, I learned a great deal about that and about other Hungarian Jews who sought refuge, like the 1,400 Hungarian Jews who were housed at the Caux-Palace Hotel in Switzerland from 1944 to 1945.
And even though more than 60 years have passed — and my college acquaintance has gone his own way and more or less faded from memory — I still wanted to see that site for myself.
Caux is a small village looking out across Lake Geneva and just a few miles from Montreux, a famous Swiss tourist attraction. Eventually, in 1946, with the war ended, the hotel — with its many turrets and towers, chandeliers and ballrooms — became an international conference center, hoping to work on healing the wounds of the past and looking toward peace, tolerance and forgiveness between all people.
But those Jews who found temporary refuge here are still remembered, as are those who were turned back at the frontier. In 1997, to mark the memory of the refugees, an oak tree was planted. Later, in 1999, a plaque was installed at the foot of that tree; looking out over a breathtaking view of Lake Geneva, it reads: "In remembrance of the Jewish refugees who stayed here, and of those who were not admitted to enter Switzerland during World War II. We shall not forget."
Because my interest had been piqued long ago, I had read about this refugee era in Swiss history, though little did I realize that one day I would be heading off to Switzerland — namely, to nearby Montreux and Vevey — and be able to see the magnificent structure high above the lake for myself.
Besides its amazing history, the sheer magnificence of the building — a stunning example of Belle Epoque architecture — looks out over majestic mountains and magically pure lake waters. And the Montreux/Vevey region, often referred to as the "Pearl of the Swiss Riviera," is an ideal destination any time of the year.
Our journey began in the mountains around Gruyère. As we boarded a train, a heavy snow was falling. It was cold, wet, yet somehow, a beautiful morning with the mountains blanketed in white.
But heading toward Montreux, suddenly the snow stopped, and as we wound our way down the mountain side, amazingly, greenery appeared — even, believe it or not, palm trees!
After we checked into our hotel, we decided to visit one of Montreux's most famous sites: The Chateau de Chillon, a genuine 13th-century castle where Lord Byron based his famous poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon." The castle couldn't be more beautiful or more dramatic, appearing to rise out of the waters of Lac Leman, where it is connected to the mainland by a small wooden bridge.
Montreux has much to recommend it, including a strong musical tradition. For example, the annual world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival and the Montreux-Vevey Classical Music Festival appeal to visitors from around the world.
Because this part of the world is so beautiful, it's easy to see why so many celebrities were attracted to it: Henry James set his Daisy Miller here; Peter Tschaikovsky, Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn and Richard Burton loved the area.
Soprano Joan Sutherland still lives just above Montreux, as she has done for 40 years. Her neighbor, until his death in the 1970s, was Noel Coward.
A statue of rock legend Freddie Mercury stands in Montreux, as does a statue of Charlie Chaplin. Not only does Chaplin's statue dominate the park near his home, but he became an inspiration for chocolate-maker Blaise Poyet, who had the idea to model Chaplin's oversized shoes in chocolate to honor the famous comic actor and director who spent his last 25 years in the Vevey region.
For more information, see: www.montreuxtourism.ch.