The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three)

I just could not let it go. Throwing the equivalent of sixty dollars down the drain was too much to stomach. I urged my friend to take the night train back with me from Krakow to Budapest. I did not want to surrender half the cost of a ticket no matter how minimal the loss. It would also mean an entire day spent in transit, wasting a precious day of sightseeing. These two factors made me overlook the painful memory of what had occurred just two days before on our trip from Budapest to Krakow. Surely if we survived it once, we could do so again. I tried to console my friend with the idea “that this would be the last time we ever had to do this.” Such flippant logic only went so far, because we were still going to endure it one more time. And that one time had been one too many. My friend was not happy about the thought of suffering another sleepless night or that “terrible banging noise”. Neither was I, but as much as I hated that first trip, it made for a hell of a story. In the pursuit of adventure and a good yarn I was ready to suffer it all over again.

That lonesome whistle - Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

That lonesome whistle – Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

Getting What You Pay For –  Train Games
There was one caveat though. My friend wanted to see if we could change the ticket from a six bed to a two-bed berth. In a spirit of guilt ridden magnanimity I approached a woman at the international ticket window in Krakow Glowny who spoke horrendous English which was matched by her terrible attitude. The only words I was able to understand were her increasingly loud exhalations of “no refund”. My desperate protestations were no match for her willful indifference.  She was too busy waiting to go on break or perhaps she was already on one. I returned to my friend with the sad, but not surprising news that we would still be bunking with four strangers. He recoiled at this idea. I tried to soothe his nerves by uttering a few useless analogies about how “it couldn’t be any worse than the other night” and “what difference does it make how many people are in the compartment, the banging will be just as loud.”

After a period of tense silence and a pensive stare, he said “I am going to see if I can buy us a two-berth compartment.” Back to the window he went. A little while later he came back looking relaxed and holding a ticket for the two of us in our own compartment. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief. At least we could suffer the return trip by ourselves. I offered to pay my share of the ticket. He was so elated by this small victory that he would not hear of it. We did not enter the train until just past 10:00 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Our compartment seemed a bit roomier than before. That was because the third bunk was not pulled down. In effect, my friend had paid for our berths as well as a vacant one. We both expressed a sense of foreboding as the train began to pull away from the station. I was prepared for another nightmare scenario. Our lone hope was that we were in a different railway car. It was from Hungarian railways, rather than the Polish one we took to Krakow.

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks - Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks – Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Thief In The Night –  Dreams & Nightmares
Our expectation of cracks, pops and bangs failed to materialize. The first few hours turned out to be a relatively smooth journey. In comparison to our first trip it was a dream, but as the train crossed over into a Moravian countryside cloaked in darkness my apprehension grew. At any moment the train might start belching forth those tortuous noises. I settled my nerves with a special melatonin drink to help me get a few hours of sleep. Soon I was in a trance, followed by a daze and then I fell asleep. Every hour or so I would awake. At one point I felt the train stop and heard voices outside the window. Peeking through a thin curtain I noticed we were in the small city of Breclav, a major railway junction in the Czech Republic which sits close to the Austrian and Slovakian border. I did not see a single potential passenger on the platform, only border guards walking back and forth. It felt like a dream.

A couple of hours before dawn I got up and went to the bathroom. When I reentered the compartment, I failed to fully shut the door. It swung outward and banged against the compartment exterior. I pulled it closed, but forgot to lock it. I then fell into the deepest  sleep I have ever experienced on a train. When I awoke, it was nearly eight a.m. and we were nearing Budapest. I felt totally refreshed from a good night’s rest. The train ride had been close to perfect. I mentioned this to my friend who was already dressed. His reply sent a shock wave through me. “My wallet is gone.” He was frantically searching his pockets, suitcase and the berth. I began to search as well. He had made the mistake of putting it in the netting hanger just above the bed. I had done the same thing on the first trip, but without any problems. I should have known better.

Another night another train - Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Another night another train – Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Relief & Recrimination – Lost & Found
It suddenly struck me that my friend had almost certainly been the victim of theft.
He believed his wallet was stolen when we were both in our bunks that night. My friend had distinctly heard the door to the compartment close loudly. It woke him up. He recalled looking at the door and then at me laying there asleep. This made him wonder if he had imagined it.  Whatever might have happened, one thing was for certain, someone else had entered the room that night. This violation made us suddenly vulnerable, feelings of fear, menace and anger descended on the compartment. Usually reserved and rarely prone to cursing, my friend spewed forth an expletive. We were both approaching crisis mode. I began to wonder what we were going to do.

At least I had my wallet, or did I? I checked my suitcase, unzipping one of the pockets. It was empty. Panic flew straight from my mouth, “My wallet and passport are gone too?” I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. My heart was pounding, hands shaking. Frantically I checked another area in my suitcase. That is where I found my wallet and both of our passports. A feeling of instantaneous relief passed through me, followed by guilt and shame. My friend’s wallet was still missing. I was the one who had left the door unlocked. He blamed himself, I blamed myself. None of this did either of us any good. We tried to recall what may have happened. He had gone to the bathroom as well. The theft could have happened while he was out. We both believed it had happened in the last couple of hours while I was fast asleep. He remembered hearing the door shut, I remembered nothing.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest to Krakow (Part Two)

Coming soon: The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow to Budapest (Part Four)

A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind Of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

Four in the morning is a terrible time to be awake, especially if you have not slept a wink. The Budapest to Krakow overnight express was rattling its way through Moravia. Hideous sounds came from beyond the walls of our small, rattle trap compartment. Sounding like somewhere out there in the deep, dark night an army of industrial workers was tearing the train apart while it hurtled into the unknown. When the banging momentarily subsided, the merciless sensation of the train shifting from side to side would take hold. The rails were supposed to be straight, but I imagined them as shiny strings of steel spaghetti leading the locomotive through a foreign land.

The train was supposedly headed to Krakow, but it felt like a voyage into an unknown abyss filled with sharp bends and precipitate drops. One minute we would be roaring downhill.  Then the brakes would suddenly scream out in a piercing shriek. The sound effects emanating from the rickety bowels below us were more frightening than anything I had heard in a horror film. Once in a while my friend and I commiserated in our misery. “This is insane” “something must be wrong with the train” and always we came back to the same exasperated question, “What was that awful banging?”

Enter at your own risk

Enter at your own risk (Credit: Man In Seat 61)

Beyond The Grasp Of Reason – Nightmare For A Memory

There was no sane explanation for what was wrong with the train. For that matter, there was no logical reason it stayed on the tracks. All we could do was hope for dawn and then Krakow. Out of sheer exhaustion I finally fell asleep. When I awoke, my friend was already dressed for arrival. He had slept even less than I had. His first overnight train trip had been horrific. It was as though we had been placed in a cage that had been beaten all night with iron bars. I looked out the window at a pastoral landscape covered in mist. This was Poland. It was hard to believe that we were close to Krakow. The previous evening was now a nightmarishly unforgettable memory. We were late for our arrival, but it hardly mattered at this point. Our only thought was getting off this train. I had a distinct feeling of unreality. Having survived this dangerous odyssey was beyond the grasp of reason.

Emerging from the compartment, I met several others in the hallway who looked the worse for wear. A bleary-eyed mother and her teenage son were standing slump shouldered while arguing amongst themselves. They conversed in English and turned out to be Americans. I struck up a conversation with them. They were traveling around Europe on a multi-month journey. I asked them their opinion of the train trip. The mother said this had been their first overnight trip on a train.  She was glad to have the experience, but never wanted to go through a night like that again. Then the inevitable question, “Did you hear that loud banging? What was going on?” Of course, I had no idea what had caused that nightmare of noise. I did not say it, but I disagreed with the mother. I would have gladly traded this trip for a pleasant daylong railway ride to Krakow. I had the feeling that everyone else felt this way as well. Every passenger who filed out of their compartment looked to be in tired disarray. It had been that kind of night. This journey had given me and my traveling companion a hangover without a drop of alcohol.

No Room For Comfort – Suffer The Night
The best we could say about the trip was that it had been an adventure. The exact opposite of the relaxing, sleep filled, smooth ride we had hoped to experience. A few weeks prior to this trip I had written a blog post expressing dismay that the Hungarian National Railways planned to cut overnight train services. This was part of a trend on many European railway lines. I still hope overnight European train travel survives, but I must admit that in its current form the days of romance, comfort and leisure on these trains has long since passed into history. The problem has as much to do with the passengers as it does the service. We live in an age of mass travel. To be affordable and competitive, night trains must pack many people within the wagon. Three and six bed berths do not leave much room for comfort. Space is extremely limited. The niceties of comfort have been largely done away with. Fine dining has been replaced by an improved version of the tv dinner. Forget a decent bathroom, these are barely above the level of rudimentary. I have begun to wonder if overnight train travel has survived in Europe only because of government subsidies and traditionalism.

The price is not right either. Overnight train travel is scarcely competitive with buses. These days it may actually be cheaper to fly. A traveler can fly between Budapest and many European cities on low cost carrier Wizz Air for a mere pittance. Bus rides between Budapest and Krakow can be had for as little as 10 Euros, about a fifth of the cost incurred by someone booking an overnight train between those two cities a day in advance. Admittedly flying is a hassle and long bus rides are exhausting in the extreme, but the cost and convenience are still tough to beat. Of course, on a train the passengers get to see the countryside. That is except for overnight trains, where they only see darkness. They can always pass the time as I did, trying to read by a very bad light, then tossing and turning restlessly on a ride through railway hell. Fortunately, I did not have to do this with five strangers, but that option had also been available. One could attain a level of discomfort scarcely sufferable, all for a bit of romantic nostalgia.

Arrival time - Krakow Glowny

Arrival – Krakow Glowny

Stoicism & Quiet Agitation – Mourning Arrival
My lone companion had suffered the trip much the same as I did, with stoicism and quiet agitation. When the train pulled into Krakow Glowny there was a sense of beleaguered relief, we had somehow made it. We were not rested and ready, only tired and weak. The first thing that came to mind was getting to our accommodation as soon as possible and sleeping the day off. This thought kept us going. Along with the idea that we could not possibly do this trip again. We had just two and a half days to change our minds

Click here for: Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Click here for: The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three) 

Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Some people never learn and I am one of them. Several years ago, I took a night train from Belgrade, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria thinking it would give me an extra day to visit the latter. It did, but unfortunately only after enduring a bone rattling train ride through the night. The morning after that trip I was the worse for wear. I did not enjoy the extra time I got in Sofia due to my sleep deprived state. I should have learned from that lesson. Overnight trains were not for me. In the intervening years I had marginally better experiences on overnight trains to Spilt, Croatia and Brasov, Romania. I never completely swore off overnight trains. The romance tended to outweigh the irritation I experienced. My enchantment with such train trips started long ago with the James Bond film, From Russia With Love. In it Bond travels with a beautiful Russian bombshell named Tatiana from Istanbul to Trieste. The dining car, elegant compartments, mystery and intrigue captured my imagination. Never mind, that Bond nearly gets strangled with a piece of wire. Or the fact that two other men are murdered on the train which never quite makes it to Trieste. I was still smitten with the idea of train trips through exotic European locales. After six years though, that allure would disappear on a single overnight trip from Budapest to Krakow.

Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route

It looks so appealing – Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route (Credit: Man in Seat Sixty-One)

Just One Night – Rationalizing A Rail Ride
The idea seemed sound. An older friend and myself would take the overnight train from Budapest’s Keleti Station to Krakow Glowny. This would give us an extra day to tour Krakow. Why waste a day sitting on a train, when we could sleep on one at night? An additional benefit of this plan was that it would save us from paying for a hotel room. The train would leave Keleti at 8:07 p.m. and arrive in Krakow the next morning just after 7:00 a.m. My friend, who is much older than I am, was all for giving it a try, but was wondering what it would be like. He had never spent the night on a train. I related my experiences both good and bad, but explained away the Belgrade to Sofia fiasco as a one off. After all that was Serbian and Bulgarian railways. Hungary and Poland were much farther along in their post-communist development. And besides it was as much about the overnight train trip experience as anything else.

We only had one misgiving. Our failure to book early enough in advance meant we could only reserve a three rather than two-berth compartment. This meant we would be bunking with a stranger or so we thought. Neither of us was excited by this prospect. We both loathed the idea of shared sleeping accommodations. My friend was a lifelong bachelor, after almost fifty years to himself, bunking down above or beneath a foreigner who came from an entirely different culture did not seem like an appealing prospect. We both agreed that this was just for one night and we could handle almost anything for a short duration of time. Luckily, the third person did not show by the time the train pulled out of the station. Less than half an hour after the train left, I noticed some loud popping and banging. I rationalized this as the train having a few issues getting adjusted. We slowly and nosily surged forward into northern Hungary.

Northwest by North - Budapest to Krakow by train

Northwest by North – Budapest to Krakow by train

Compartmental Consternation – Invisible Impediments
Soon we were getting ready for bed.  Just before turning the lights out we asked the conductor if anyone else would be joining us. He nodded in the affirmative and said something unintelligible in Polish. The one word I recognized was Bratislava. I assumed that another passenger would be joining us when we stopped in the Slovakian capital. Hopefully by then I would be too exhausted to care. I did not expect to rest very well, but figured as the night went on I would be able to catch several hours of sleep. My companion seemed unsure whether he would be able to sleep or not. He mentioned that he had survived sleeping in Marine barracks during boot camp. This could not be much worse. The problem was that these barracks were on wheels struggling to stay on tracks. We were constantly reminded of this not long after laying our heads down to sleep.

At random intervals the train car would be jarred by some invisible impediment. This would cause a commotion that threatened to toss me all the way over in my bunk. It kept happening as the night gave way to the earliest hours of the morning. That third possible passenger never showed and was forgotten amid the banging and clanging, popping and stopping. Here was a case where we tossed and turned, as much from the train’s wild tango with the tracks, as from our own efforts. Every so often I would pull the curtains back and peek through the window. There was complete darkness for a minute or two and then a lonely light in the distance. I thought to myself, this must be Moravia, but it could have been anywhere. We were cast adrift in a netherworld of travel.

A place not to sleep - beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper
A place not to sleep – Beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper (Credit: Robs World Adventure Blog)

Toilet With A Twist – Shaking & Shimmying
Several times in the night I made my way to the bathroom, which meant stumbling down a corridor while trying to keep pace with the constant shifts and jolts of the train.  Once in the bathroom I struggled to pee. The problem was that I had to brace myself for the inevitable jolting. My legs were set rigid as I struggled to straddle the toilet. At one point after finally starting to pee, the train began to weave, not along a curve or bend, but literally weave as though it was veering from side to side. My hips started shimmying. I was taking a piss while doing the twist.  Somehow. I managed not to pee all over the wall. I was rather proud of this depraved bit of dexterity, yet also deeply troubled by the train’s weaving. This train gave me the sensation of riding on a self-propelled bicycle directed by a madman.

At some point in the night my friend voiced his concern with the ear splitting banging noises that occurred with alarming frequency. It sounded as though someone was beating the train into submission with iron bars. My friend voiced his frustration by asking no one in particular, “What is that banging?” I had no idea, but whatever it was would not stop. I began to wonder if the train was going to survive this trip. The same could be said for us, its ill-fated passengers.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

A Periphery As The Center – The Erdohat: Hungary’s Forsaken & Beloved Land

I used to think that the Nyirseg, a region in the far reaches of eastern Hungary covered by birch trees, dunes and reclaimed marshland was the remotest in the country. A place largely untouched by modern tourism. That was until I learned about the Erdohat, a region even further out on Hungary’s eastern frontier. It occupies the southern part of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg County. The Erdohat is so remote that it has even managed to largely escape the internet’s attention. Google Erdohat and the search engine returns 527 results, compared with 60,900 for the Nyirseg. If the Nyirseg is Hungary’s land of beyond, then the Erdohat is the back of beyond. A place that shows a way much of Hungary used to be and parts of it are likely to become in the future. A glimpse of the country before industrialization and urbanization. The idea of cities is anathema to the Erdohat. The largest town, Fehergyarmet, has a population of just over 8,000 people. This is a land of villages, some have called it the quintessential Hungary, which is another way of saying traditional, rural and agricultural. A region where people still live off a combination of their wits and the land.

To another world - Szatmárcseké Cemetery

To another world – Szatmárcseké Cemetery (Credit: fuzlac23)

Notable For A Lack Of Notoriety – An Island To Itself
Time has a different meaning in the Erdohat, measured by lifespans rather than days or decades. It is pliable, rather than rigid. No one is in a hurry, because there is nowhere to go. Horse drawn trumps horse power. This all sounds wonderful for those urban dwellers who long for fresh air and natural beauty. The reality is much harsher. This is a hardscrabble land, economically backward. It is not so much forgotten, as forsaken. The way of life here would be more familiar to someone a century ago, even though the industrial age brought cars, paved roads and electricity. These are not of the essence, because modernity has touched this area lightly. Technology is kept at a distance as much by indifference as limited incomes. There is a refreshing simplicity about the area. A place that is most notable for its lack of notoriety.

The Erdohat is not a forgotten land, more like a forsaken one. Some might even call this the real Hungary, secure in the knowledge that they will never live there and only pay it a rare visit. It seems romantic from a distance, mostly by those who do not have to eke out a living on it. Isolation has been the rule rather the exception here for centuries. This isolation connects the Erdohat’s present to its deep past. The region was shaped by flooding that consumed the area south of the Tisza River. Swamp, morass, marshland was thus formed. This isolated many villages, making them islands unto themselves. The many invaders that ravaged or occupied other areas of Hungary showed little interest in trying to tame this wild land. The roads were bad, the villages secluded. The inhabitants were left to their own devices. If they wanted this land, they could have it. It was not easy, even for the hard-bitten locals to find high or dry land, let own scratch a living from the soggy soil.

18th century map of land cover - Szatmar Plain

18th century map of land cover – Szatmar Plain

A Truly Wild Land – The Few & Far Between
An 18th century map of the Szatmar Plain, which contains the Erdohat, shows a wide, contiguous swath of the area labeled as either mud or marshland. As part of an ancient flood plain it suffered innumerable inundations and continued to until the dawn of the modern age. This decided the area’s fate thousands of years before Hungarians attempted to tame it. Like all truly wild places, the Erdohat’s landscape had more influence on its inhabitants than they on it. That was until the great river regulations which transformed it during the 19th century. Drainage canals and ditches made the land much more inhabitable and receptive to agriculture. The area had previously been home to thick forests, but along with drainage of the land, much of the forest was removed to make the Erdohat suitable for agriculture. These changes never really did end the region’s isolation, though it brought more settlement to the region. It was geopolitics rather than the environment which confirmed the Erdohat’s remote status. When the borders of Hungary were trimmed after World War I, the Erdohat became the eastern edge of the country. A state of geography which still exists today.

The true value of the Erdohat for many Hungarians is that it evokes the rural, a magnetic attraction to the land. A unique culture still exists here, protected by insularity and cultivated by seclusion. To discover the Erdohat’s highlights one must seek out the few and far between places, ones that offer a window into the soul of a stranger land. Quaint folk customs and age-old traditions continue to thrive, the kind that make ethnographers and anthropologists salivate. Churches with wooden spires and belfries are among the most prominent architectural features. It only makes sense that one of the strangest and most iconic sights is to be found in a cemetery. The Szatmarcseke Calvinist Cemetery, located in a village of the same name, contains boat shaped wooden tombstones. Such markers infuse the cemetery with a distinct spirit. Nowhere to be found are the harsh concrete or polished tombstones which are hallmarks of modern cemeteries. The people may have died, but they are marked by this unique reverence. The way of life goes on in the Erdohat with no end in sight.

Reformed Church in Fehergyarmat

In the heart – Reformed Church in Fehergyarmat (Credit: Kalyob)

The Center Of A Nation – Back To Nature
Of course, like much of Hungary the Erdohat suffers from demographic decline, but suffering is nothing new in a landscape that was long known for its forbidding nature. Survival defines the Erdohat more than prosperity. Life is hard here and always will be. As the population declines, nature will slowly retake many of the old villages. Vacant houses crumble, villages die out. While sad, this also seems to be the natural state of things for this land. The Erdohat now consumes more people than it produces. If anything, it is becoming increasingly remote from the rest of Hungary. At the same time, it is a storehouse of nature, folk culture, rural life and traditional values that Hungarians hold deep in their hearts. The center of a nation found on the periphery.

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen: When The Sun Shone The Brightest

In the mid-1970’s a little girl and her father went out one day to pick flowers for her mother in Debrecen, Hungary. It was the beginning of springtime. The trees were just beginning to blossom, but there was still a nip of cold in the air. The little girl, no more than four years old at time, was bundled up tight against the late afternoon chill. Her head and neck were wrapped in a scarf. Her father was dressed in trench coat and slacks. There was something extraordinary and memorable about the ordinariness of that moment which was captured in a photo forever. The photo shows the little girl clutching flowers she has gathered in her right hand, while looking toward the camera. Her father is holding her around the hips and is looking at her with a gaze of serenity and love. This scene must have been repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times over the coming years. Then one day many years later the father died, at least in a physical sense. He did not die spiritually. That is because his daughter carried the love he gave to her and his family forward into the world. Loved ones never really die, because they live on through the love they gave to others.

A Little Girl & Her Father - Debrecen

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen

Broken Homes – The Curse Of Total War
The father never knew his father. He was more than likely dead before his son was born. Even if he was still alive it was in a concentration camp far away from eastern Hungary. On the day he died, the son would not have known what a father was and the father would not have ever seen his son. Europe in the 1940’s was filled with these types of tragedies, the curse of total war. Fathers went off to fronts, battle or genocidal ones and never returned. There was a void left in every nation and an emptiness occupying a multitude of hearts. Thus, sons and daughters grew up without their fathers. Their mothers were single parents not by choice, but by fate. The mother of the son in Debrecen, raised the boy the best she could under the circumstances. She had to be tough. Debrecen was badly damaged by the war, both physically and mentally. The economy was in tatters, the nation was trying to rebuild while the Soviets were exacting reparations a thousand thefts at a time.

The mother had been damaged even worse. She had narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust. Her husband was Jewish and she was ethnically Hungarian. Such was the difference between life and death in those days of darkness. In the spring of 1944 her husband was walled off from her in the ghetto. Then a month or two later taken to the brickyard at Serly, before being deported beyond Hungary’s borders to hell on earth. And speaking of hell on earth, the Soviets and Germans fought a massive tank battle on the edge of Debrecen while the Americans bombed it from above. Hell from the ground up and the sky below. Soviet soldiers did unspeakable things that would only be recalled in recurring nightmares for the rest of women’s lives.

My Heart – Healing With Happiness
We can never know what the mother went through. The will to endure must have been strong, because there was no other option. The instinct of a mother to provide for her child gave her the will to overcome desperate circumstances. The son turned out to be highly intelligent. He had a gift for learning, which morphed into a love for medicine. The son without a father and a mother working a commoners job just to make ends meet, odd couples like these were the rule not the exception at that time in Hungary. Fortunately, there was a system in Hungary that could help the working class and those who excelled in school. Communism was a human tragedy for Hungary during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, but the system had its uses as well as its abuses. Free education was there for the taking, a brilliant mind could get you a degree and lead to a medical practice. It also led the son to meet the love of his life. Not far from the college at a restaurant that is still there today, the son met a woman of supreme intellect. One of the few who could match wits with him. They would come to refer to each other as my heart. For them there was the kind of love that sprinkles the world with a mysterious magic. Conjuring a romance out of every moment they spent together.

The inevitable outcome was marriage, then a son and a daughter. Trips to the Black Sea by way of a Trabant, family vacations along the Adriatic. In photos the son, who has now become a proud father, beams with happiness. Everyone who knew him said that this was a man who loved life. And he gave life, to the sick and the weak and the suffering. His profession was to heal others, not just with his mind, but also his happiness. Perhaps such enjoyment of life reflected an awareness that his own father had happiness and contentment stolen away from him by the Holocaust. Or maybe he realized how lucky he, the son, had been. If born only a year or two earlier, the likelihood is that he would have perished at a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Some people would say that it is better to be lucky than it is good. Well he was both lucky and good, some would even say great.

Greater Than Any River Of Tears – Memories Of A Father
There were so many days like the one captured in the photo. Taking his daughter for walks to gather flowers, holding her hand as she tottered along beside him, giving her hugs and kisses when he arrived home from the clinic. And as she grew older his love grew with her. It was a magnificent life up until the day that tragedy struck. The sickness came unannounced, creeping up on him when he was in the prime of life. In a cruel irony he diagnosed himself with a terminal illness. The man who had cured so many, could not cure himself. His family watched helplessly as he lost his hair and then they lost him. The memory of the father haunted a house on the edge of Debrecen. There was a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep. There were muffled tears behind closed doors. Days of darkness even when the sun shone at its brightest.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the grief dissipated and the wellspring of enchanting memories returned to life. Never more so than the day his widow began looking at old family photos tucked away in a drawer.  There among the images, was one she set aside and would share with her daughter. It brought back a flood of memories much greater than any river of tears. Memories of the love, romance and beauty of life. Memories of a father who melted the hearts of everyone he met. None more so than the daughter he adored and the wife he loved with all his heart. In that one photo, there was a little girl and her father picking flowers for the mother. The mother who watched from behind the lens of a camera, capturing the love of their lives.

In memory of Erno Berenyi 1944 – 1990

Order Of The Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia (Part Two)

There was a castle on a distant European shoreline that once towered atop a hill overlooking the placid, icy waters of the Vistula Lagoon (Frisches Haff in German). Ships plying trade routes along the eastern Baltic Sea could sight it from several kilometers away. It was as much fortress as castle, helping guard the sea lanes that brought the Teutonic Knights trade, wealth and power. Today the castle cannot be seen from the lagoon, as it only exists in ruined form. To view it, one must approach from the landward side. The dilapidated walls in a thicket of forest only becoming visible at very close range. It takes a bit of imagination to sense that this was once a place of great importance. It takes less imagination to understand that the ruins of this castle did not come to their present state by natural processes.

Today what is left of Balga Castle is located within Kaliningrad Oblast. Oblast is the Russian equivalent of a province and Kaliningrad is the smallest one in Russia. This is quite a downgrade for a castle that was an integral building block of a political and military entity that eventually became Prussia, a Great Power that reshaped the geopolitics of Europe on multiple occasions.  Balga Castle’s history may be long and storied, but like the Prussian state it became a part of, that history belongs to the past. The future of the site looks likely to continue as a remote and largely forgotten ruin, that will either slowly degrade or at best be shored up against the elements. They betray only traces of what happened here in the distant and not so distant past. Whether it was seven centuries or seventy years before, Balga saw both success and defeat on a grand scale.

Balga Castle - Artistic rendering of how it looked in the medieval era

Balga Castle – Artistic rendering of how it looked in the medieval era

A Permanent Presence – The Impregnable Fortress
In 1250 the Teutonic Knights converted Balga from a wooden fortress into a bricks, stone and mortar castle/fortress. The complex was laid out on a hexagonal plan with three wings that included bedrooms, a chapel and refectory, which was a larger room where the Knights took communal meals. The grounds of the outer ward contained warehouses and additional living quarters for clerks who were involved in a growing trade. A high tower was also raised in this area.  Several Grand Marshals of the Order made Balga their home. The complex would prove to be impregnable against martial foes. In other areas the Knights were not so fortunate. Following their defeat against a Polish-Lithuanian force at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 their power began to wane. Over time, changes in the geopolitical situation in northern Europe forced the lands under the Order’s control to evolve.

Those lands eventually became the Duchy of Prussia in 1525.  Around this time, the castle still enjoyed great prestige as a home for George of Polentz, the first Lutheran bishop in the region and the man who launched the Reformation in Prussia. George shared an enduring trait with the Teutonic Knights, namely the suppression of pagan worship practices. For instance, he would not allow worship of the pagan god of thunder, Perkunas. George’s methods of suppression were less cruel, but no less effective than the ultraviolence that had been used by the Knights in their initial conquest of the area. When George died at Balga in 1550, its glory days ended with his life. By the 17th century, it was being scavenged for material to help construct a fortress at the port of Pilau (present-day Baltiysk) out beyond the lagoon on the Curonian Spit. The castle went from disrepair to disuse, largely neglected until one of its still existing wings was used to house a museum during the 19th century. Balga looked as though it would become the preserve of proud Prussian patriots and bored schoolchildren in the province of East Prussia. This sleepy existence would end along with everything else Germanic in the region at the end of World War II.

Ruins of Balga Castle in 1940 - before the war came to East Prussia

Ruins of Balga Castle in 1940 – before the war came to East Prussia

The Last Redoubt – On Distant & Deadly Shores
In early January of 1945, villagers in and around the Balga area began to hear rumors that the Red Army had entered eastern Prussia. By the mid-point of that same month the first German refugees arrived telling of horrific atrocities by Soviet troops. It was not long before a trickle became a torrent. Soldiers soon arrived. They were quartered in any vacant room that could be found. In February, the evacuation of all civilians was ordered. Many resisted, but a forcible evacuation was carried out when the Red Army closed in on the area. Evacuees first crossed the frozen Vistula Lagoon on ice. Later during the spring thaw, they were ferried across in whatever watercrafts could be found. The Red Army was on the verge of overrunning the entire province of East Prussia by mid-March. By this point, German military efforts in the Balga area focused on trying to evacuate the last soldiers and civilians.

German soldiers fought with total desperation because they knew surrender meant death or deportation at the hands of the Soviets. The fighting was fiercest in the Heligenbeil Pocket, also known by the more apt descriptive as the Heligenbeil Cauldron. This was where the remnants of the German 4th Army were destroyed in a maelstrom of viciously violent warfare. Many holdouts made their way to the Kahlholzer Haaken Peninsula where they setup a defensive perimeter that incorporated the ruins of Balga Castle. In the shadow of the Teutonic Knights once impregnable castle, the remaining German troops, consisting of those from the  Panzerkorps “Großdeutschland” and the 28th Jäger Division, held out to this marshy, fat finger of land. They sank vehicles in the Vistula Lagoon to try and defend themselves from the overwhelming forces of the Red Army.

The misery of war - Heiligenbeil Pocket in 1945

The misery of war – Heiligenbeil Pocket in 1945

At The Mercy Of Conquest – Apocalyptic Contortions
The forest, roads and ruins were strewn with the detritus of military activity. Trenches and temporary military camps were everywhere. The day of final judgment approached. The defenders had no good options. Either try to escape, fight to the death or risk capture. The last soldiers to be evacuated left the shoreline just below Balga on March 29th. With them went 706 years of German occupation and ownership of the castle and its surroundings. What had begun in 1239 at Balga as the result of Teutonic martial might, was lost in 1945 due to Teutonic military failure. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The modern Teutonic warriors, German soldiers, died in droves attempting to fend off a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions. East Prussia now lay at the mercy of the Soviet Union. It would never be the same again.

Click here for Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle:A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)



Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle: A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)

To get to the essence of the beginning and end of an empire, kingdom or nation it is instructive to look towards the periphery. It is not at the most famous or populated places, such as a capital city or a king’s palace, where the essence of a polity’s early rise and final fall are to be found. Instead, it is in those less obvious places, on forgotten frontiers where the outlines of faded foundations are slowly succumbing to nature and irreparably eroded by time, that the beginnings of greatness or the final, fatal death throes of decrepitude can be detected. And so it is with Prussia, a name that evokes aristocratic Junkers, the resplendent coronation city of Konigsberg, German militarism and crusading Teutonic Knights.

From a Grand Order to a Duchy, then a Royal province turned into a Kingdom until exploding into an Empire, from subjugation to emasculation to complete and total annihilation. The withered remnants of a polity that had such a pronounced and lasting effect on seven centuries of history spread across the canvas of northeastern Europe and the Baltic region is now to be found in overgrown lots, the outskirts of a once great city now encased in concrete and a scattering of ruins barely recognizable that once were fortress Castles. These might have stood the test of time if not for the horrors of war. To discover a lasting essence of the eastern part of Prussia that no longer exists. an armchair historian or off the beaten path adventurer could do a whole lot worse than the ruins of Balga Castle.

Natural Wonder - The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located

Natural Wonder – The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located (Credit: Usadboved)

Conquered By Nature – A Forest Of Foliage Off The Frisches Haff
On the surface, the shattered ruins of the castle seem a strange place to investigate the rise and ultimate fall of what will forever be known as Prussia. The ruins of Balga are found far from modern Germany, amidst a forest of foliage, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Located far from the main roads, near no major towns, accessed on foot and better yet by the imagination. The ruins are as separated from the modern world, as they are from those days when Balga was a Teutonic Knights fortress. The castle has once again been largely overtaken by nature, a constant thread in both its medieval and modern history.

The ruins of Balga occupy a hilltop, but water was just as much a determining factor in its situation.  The castle was about a hundred yards off the shoreline of what was long known to the Germanic Prussians as the Frisches Haff (Vistula Lagoon), a relatively shallow body of water segregated from the Baltic Sea by a thin barrier of sand and forest known as the Curonian Spit. Not only was it close on the Frisches Haff, the castle also stood on swampy ground that turned it into a morass for many an attacking force.  It was this ground where the Teutonic Knights first set foot in 1237, attempting to subdue the fortress of Honeida, held by a clan of the pagan natives known as the Warmians. The Warmians, along with other clans in the Baltic region, were known as the Prusai (Old Prussians).

Balga Castle - where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme

Balga Castle – where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme (Credit: Christina Golubenko)

Old Prussians – A Northern Crusade
Ironically the name Prussia derives from those indigenous peoples who inhabited the region when the Teutonic Knights first arrived in the area during the first half of the 13th century. They were brought in on a crusade to Christianize the last pagan peoples in Europe. The Prusai were fierce warriors whose livelihood was largely dependent on plundering and raiding their neighbors. The Knights were invited to the area with a mission to bring the Prusai to heel. Following a decade of extremely violent warfare, the Knights were slowly making inroads in their battle with the Prusai. In 1237 their efforts focused on another strategic point of potential conquest, the fortress of Honeida. Taking it would be no easy task. The fortress stood on a veritable island due to the marshy ground which surrounded it. A raiding party first sent against the fortress was slaughtered down to the very last man. In 1239 Dietrich von Bernheim, Grand Marshal of the Knights, led a substantial force to avenge the previous defeat. A first assault on Honeida was violently repulsed. That is not surprising since the wooden walls were reputed to have been twenty-six stories in height. The Knights then decided to try starving out the defenders.

Under a flag of truce, one of the fiercest Warmian warriors, by the name of Kodrume, met with the Knights. Von Bernheim offered safe passage to the defenders if they surrendered and agreed to convert to Christianity. Kodrume returned to his fellow warriors and suggested that surrender was the best option. He was accused of betrayal and murdered. After this, von Bernheim decided another attempt to storm the fortress would be made. This time the Knights were successful, either killing or taking all the defenders prisoner. The Knights then set about transforming Honeida into a much more substantial and permanent base of operations. This roused the fury of the natives who soon revolted. They realized much too late that the Knights were not in the area to raid or plunder, instead they were setting up a continuous presence. Prusai efforts to retake Balga were defeated.

An example to all - Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

An example to all – Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

Order Of The Sword – Conquering Forces
It was through campaigns such as the one which conquered Honeida that the Teutonic Knights methodically expanded their presence in the region. Once their rule was established in an area, immigrants were brought in from Germany. The land was then broken up for cultivation and tied into a thriving trade network.  The military and economic prowess of the Knights was such that by the late 14th century the order had conquered what is today northeastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The East Baltic Sea became an avenue for their mercantile interests. Balga’s main function under the knights was to control naval traffic on the Frisches Haff. Balga had to be substantially built up, both for defensive purposes and to make an impression, causing those with designs on the region to think twice before attacking it. The Prussians were always good at making impressions. That was until modern times when the Soviet Union made not only an impression, but a deadly imposition. One from which the likes of Balga and Germanic Prussia would never recover.

Click here for Order of the Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia

A Gap In The Defenses – Suwalki, Augustow & Bialystok: Last Forevers (Travels In Eastern Europe #64)

The Seskotai to Warsaw portion of the train trip turned out to be a delightful journey. I had the Welsh couple to keep me company while the train rolled through the gorgeous countryside of northeastern Poland. It was at the height of autumn. The forests were illuminated with fall foliage, while the ponds and lakes which dotted the area shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The Welsh couple I had met on the platform at Seskotai, consisted of a strikingly attractive, middle aged red-headed woman who worked some sort of office job close to Cardiff, while her stocky husband ran the farm they owned together. Both of them were pleasant and talkative, unless the subject turned to the English, whom they found particularly distasteful. If anything was wrong in Britain, then it was an Englishman’s fault according to them.

Their attitude had much in common with Eastern Europeans from small and medium sized nations that had suffered at the hands of much larger foes. As the English were to the Welsh, so the Poles were to the Lithuanians or the Germans and Russians were to the Poles. The couple were frequent travelers to Eastern Europe, coming to watch horse races each year in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city. On these same trips they made time to visit other places in the region. They were now heading towards Brno to watch the races starting in a couple of days. The husband studied the rolling landscape with the eye of a farmer. He noted the many fallow fields, remarking that these could easily be cultivated. The Poles were leaving money in the earth. The lack of development in this region made its nature more spectacular.  The forests, fields and ponds literally glowed beneath a radiant, late afternoon splash of sunshine.

State of nature - The beauty of northeastern Poland

State of nature – The beauty of northeastern Poland (Credit: Lilly M)

A Most Important Unknown Place– Strategic Suwalki
I was entranced by the serene and pristine nature. This was matched by my fascination with the area’s history. Despite its beauty, I knew that this land had been fiercely contested by Poles, Lithuanians, Prussians and Russians for many centuries. The geopolitical situation had stabilized since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but could flare up at any time. Half an hour after crossing the Polish border, the train made a stop in Suwalki. Suwalki was not only close on the Lithuanian border, but to its north could be found the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and to the south, Belarus. Nations that were to be feared rather than trusted.  The area was just as strategically important today as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. The flat narrow strip of land I was traveling through was a highly strategic security corridor for the European Union and NATO alliance.

Known as the Suwalki Gap, the only place the Baltic States border the rest of NATO. It is through this gap, that NATO troops would have to travel if they had to defend the Baltic States from a Russian attack. Conversely, Russia could sever NATO’s connections with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by closing off the gap by moving troops and armor into it. This land pockmarked with lakes and dark forests, rolling fields and rural farmsteads has not changed much over the centuries, either physically or geopolitically. Rumbling through it on a Polish train gave little hint as to its true importance to European and world peace. It was hard to imagine that a land hardly anyone knows, visits or cares about could become the setting for another World War.

The Suwalki Gap

The Suwalki Gap (Credit: Bruno Adrie)

A Primeval World – Beauty & The Beast
After Suwalki the next stop was Augustow, one of those places that was in the wrong place at the wrong time multiple times from 1914 to 1945. The First and Second Battles of The Masurian Lakes brought the German and Russian armies here in the fall of 1914 and winter of 1915. Polish and Lithuanian forces fought the Battle of Augustow around the area in 1920. Then during World War II it experienced multiple occupations, deportations and exterminations. Ethnic Poles were deported to Kazakhstan by the Soviets, the Jewish community was wiped out by the Nazis and the Soviets rounded up Polish Home Army members at the end of the war. As for the physical infrastructure of Augustow, seven out of every ten buildings were destroyed. With a history like this, it was a wonder that anything was left standing. Yet the main attraction of Augustow remained unscathed. The train skirted the Puszcza Augustowska, Polish for the Augustow primeval forest, In addition to the venerable woodlands. The train passed by several large lakes that the sunlight had transformed into pools of liquid fire. The natural world trumped the manmade all across northeastern Poland.

Much the same could be said of Bialystok which was the next prominent place the train stopped. Like so many places in the world which are well endowed with natural beauty, Bialystok was on the edge economically. Ever since the collapse of communism, industry had fallen on hard times. This made it a Polish hinterland and not just in a geographical sense, but also an economic one. Its youth fled to more vibrant cities further west. Bialystok was a place to vacation or visit family in the surrounding area, but very difficult to make a living. The history of Bialystok, was pretty much the history of Augustow, just on a larger scale. Half the population and 75% of the city center was destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt afterward. Unfortunately, this took place under the communist regime which left a dismal legacy of concrete and smokestacks. Looking out the train window it was hard to believe that nearby stood the last stretches of the primeval forest which once covered much of Northern Europe. Deep in these woods the European bison still roamed. This ancient world has been protected in the Białowieża Forest National Park. Comparing the surrounding nature to Bialystok was like a reality episode of Beauty and the Beast.

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways (Credit: Grzegorz Saczyło)

Forever Fleeting – Momentary Raptures
After Bialystock, the stops increased, but were in less prominent places. The kind of towns that people leave, rather than visit. Lapy, Szepietowo, Czyzew, Malkina, Tluszcz. Before long we were on the outskirts of Warsaw. This would be my last train trip for at least six months. I was back to where I started two weeks before. Saying goodbye to the Welsh couple filled me with a wave of sadness. Not because we had that much in common, but from the knowledge that traveling brought me into contact with people and places that were otherwise foreign to me. I became familiar with another world, one that was forever fleeting. These were moments that I could only have for a limited amount of time. Somehow I would have to make them last forever.

Abandoned By The World – Sestokai, Lithuania: A Forgotten Frontier (Travels In Eastern Europe #63)

The morning arrived that I was due to leave Lithuania for Warsaw. My trip was almost over, except for this final train trip. I was surprised to discover that only a single train traveled between the two cities each day. This had to do with geo-politics. A more direct route between the two cities would have gone through the city of Grodno in Belarus. I could have gone this way, if I had an inordinate amount of time on my hands, wanted to chance getting shaken down by Belarusian border guards and purchase an outrageously expensive visa.

Belarus was not in the European Union and was not likely to be anytime in the future. Thus, I would have to take a train to Sestokai, a small town close to the Poland-Lithuanian border and then make a transfer. Almost all of Lithuania uses the old Soviet railway gauge which is broader than the standard European gauge. Thus, one train would take me from Vilnius to Sestokai and then another one from Sestokai to Warsaw. The line that ran from Sestokai to the Polish border opened just two years after the Soviet collapse. So many things are new in the old world of Eastern Europe. For some reason, I imagined Sestokai as a large railway interchange teeming with activity. That turned out to be far from the truth.

Unexpected Nightmares – The Night of Day
I got to the Vilnius Train Station well ahead of time. I did not want to miss the only train that could take me to Warsaw in time for my flight back home the next day. Soon enough we were headed through the Lithuanian countryside. It did not take long before we were at Kaunas, the second largest city in the country. I knew Kaunas, but not from a prior visit. I had seen a terrifying photograph taken in Kaunas during World War II while visiting the site of the infamous Wannsee Conference in a suburb of Berlin. This was where the Final Solution – the planned extermination of the Jews – was planned. An exhibit about the Holocaust in Lithuania contained a photo from what is known as the Kaunas Pogrom in late June of 1941. It was taken during the Lietukis Garage Massacre. In the photo, a man was swinging an iron bar at someone lying on the ground. There was the blood and bodies of Jewish men who either lay dying or were already dead. Soldiers were gathered around watching.

The horror - Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The horror – Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas

The photo was utterly terrifying. I froze in horror and looked at it for a long time in stunned disbelief. The one thing I remember besides that image, was that it was taken in Kaunas. This memory was a shock to my system. Looking at Kaunas through the train window, nothing hinted at this brutally dark past. It was not fair to judge Kaunas by a photo taken in the city seventy years before in entirely different circumstances, just as it was not fair to judge this city from a train window either. I began to have strange, paradoxical feelings. Ever since that first, fleeting glimpse of Kaunas, I have longed to explore the city, prove that horrific picture wrong by experiencing beauty and kindness there. To find a bright, transcendent light to burn away all that darkness. Unfortunately, light and darkness also can cause blindness. Knowledge of history is a wonderful thing, until you realize that it can lead to unexpected nightmares. I will have to come back to Kaunas, if only to prove history right or wrong.

Crossing Over – Isolated Anxiety
After Kaunas I began to get anxious. I knew the train would stop soon, but I had no idea what was to come. This moment of anticipation heightened my awareness. The train soon came to a dead stop at what had to be Sestokai. There was a small brick station, several sets of train tracks going in either direction and hardly anyone else around. I struck up a conversation with a Welsh couple. They were just as confused as I was. Where was the Polish train that would take us on to Warsaw? The place was nearly deserted. Standing on a platform with no train in sight, it felt like we had been abandoned by the world. There was something cinematic about our situation. Isolated travelers, thrown together on the frontier of a foreign country, having no idea what might come next.  It is moment’s like these while traveling that I feel most vulnerable. Conversely, it is also in such moments that I rely on hope and trust. What other choice was there? We would just have to wait.

An Isolated Anxiety - Sestokai Train Station

An Isolated Anxiety – Sestokai Train Station

We were supposedly in the heart of Sestokai, but whatever town there seemed to be of no consequence. Nothing notable could be seen. This was a strange hinterland. It felt like a border outpost, but was not quite on the border. It was of great importance to travelers, but there were very few to be seen. The railway station looked like it belonged to a forgotten era. It had a provincial, time standing still look about it. Sestokai only enjoyed its notoriety because of a quirk in the European railway gauge system, a relic of the Cold War. In a sense I was standing, not just on a platform, but one of those bizarre fault lines that are a legacy of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. I imagine that as Lithuania becomes more intertwined within the European Union and westward in outlook, Sestokai will become increasingly marginalized. By the looks of it, the place had always been close to that point.

Leaving Lithuania

Leaving Lithuania (Credit: Gediminas)

Leaving Lithuania – An Unknown Fear
The Welsh couple and myself were at the point of wondering aloud to each other whether another train would come for us. That was followed by rhetorical questions about whether we were even in the right place. None of us knew a word of Lithuanian so there was little use in entering the station to ask. Besides, none of us wanted to leave in case the train suddenly arrived. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact less than thirty minutes, a train slowly pulled up to the platform. No one signaled or gave us any hint that this was our train, we just got onboard. As the train began to slowly head west towards the Polish border I relaxed. We were on our way to Warsaw. Leaving Lithuania behind made me sad. When, if ever, would I return? This is a fear I always have when leaving a country or at the end of a trip. Is this the last time? I have no way of knowing and that is one of the main reasons I keep on traveling.

Taking On The World – Lithuanian Long Shots: Basketball The Baltic Way (Travels In Eastern Europe #62)

While walking around Vilnius I began to notice something strange, attached to many of the light posts were basketball goals. Above them were banners heralding the fact that Vilnius would soon be hosting the next World Basketball Championships. It was also a signal that Lithuania’s most popular sport is basketball. In Europe, just as in the world at large, football is the dominant sport. And this dominance is most pronounced in larger countries such as Spain, Germany, Great Britain and France. The chances of Lithuania or any other small European nation making a run at a World Cup title are minuscule. Unlike football, basketball requires only five starting players. To field a world class side, a team only needs a couple of excellent players or a starting five that gels at the right time. Putting together a world class basketball squad is something Lithuania has done time and again, going all the way back to the 1930’s.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the beginning of the 1990’s and the reconstruction of the Baltic nations, I distinctly remember hearing Lithuanian names for the first time. The two I recall most prominently were Sarunas Marciulonis and Aryvadis Sabonis. Both were excellent basketball players who would go onto careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA). This was my first hint that the sporting prowess of the Soviet Union was a distinctly multi-ethnic affair. Many of the best Soviet sportsmen were not ethnic Russians. At first this seems a bit odd, because “the Russians”  was a term synonymous with the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians were  80% of the total Soviet population, but there were millions of Soviet citizens from other ethnic backgrounds as well. Many of these made a name for themselves, especially in athletics. Some groups such as the Lithuanians already had strong athletic traditions that the Soviets built upon.

Nationalist sentiment - Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket

Nationalist sentiment – Lithuanian and historical Vytis flags displayed by fans during EuroBasket (Credit: globalite)

A Point Of National Pride – Tipping Off
Basketball in Lithuania owes much of its popularity to the nation in which it was invented, the United States. Lithuanians came to America seeking a better life throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. While working their way up the economic ladder, many of them spent leisure time playing basketball. In 1935, ethnic Lithuanians from around the world were invited back to their ancestral homeland to take part in a World Lithuanian Congress. Lithuanian-American basketball players fielded a team at that event which captured the imagination of their compatriots. The American influence grew the following year after Frank Lubin, whose parents were both born in Lithuania, led the United States to the Gold Medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Lubin followed up this success by traveling to Lithuania and coaching basketball. The popularity of the sport began to soar within the country.

In 1937, Lithuania played in its first international competition, the EuroBasket tournament. Due to the play of several Lithuanian –Americans, who had been late additions to the team, they won the championship. Two years later, Lithuania hosted the event and won again. World War II effectively ended Lithuania’s reign as European champions with subsequent international competitions cancelled for the duration of the conflict. Following the war, Lithuania was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Its star basketball players became the force that would lead the Soviet side to a silver medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics. They starred in future Olympics as well. Many Lithuanians were able to channel their nationalism through basketball. Kaunas’ Zalgiras squad often played their hardest when facing the top Soviet team, CSKA Moscow. The games were a point of national pride and became de facto contests between Lithuania and the ruling regime. Basketball was cathartic, allowing Lithuanians to show their patriotic pride short of a full-scale revolt, which would have been met with deadly force.

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team - EuroBasket 1937 champions

The first great Lithuanian National Basketball Team – EuroBasket 1937 champions

Giants & Giant Killers – Olympian Achievements
When representing the Soviet Union, ethnic Lithuanians played as though they had something to prove. One of the greatest upsets in Olympic Basketball history and arguably the Soviet Union’s greatest basketball victory in international competition would never have occurred without a triumvirate of Lithuanians leading the way. At the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviets faced off against the tournament favorite United States in a semifinal match. Marciulonis, Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinatis combined to score 73% of their team’s points. Kurtinatis was on fire, leading all scorers with 28 points. The Soviets prevailed 82-76 over a United States squad that was filled with players that would go on to memorable NBA careers. It was a stunning upset. Coincidentally, it would also be the last Olympics where Lithuanians competed for the Soviet Union.

When Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, the small Baltic nation of just three million people was finally able to field a truly national team. It had been over half a century since Lithuania had competed on their own internationally. They were good enough to make a lasting impression. In 1992, the Lithuanians played as an independent nation in an Olympic Basketball competition for the first time ever. They went on to win a bronze medal in Barcelona. In both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics they managed to duplicate that feat. In the latter, they came close to pulling off another miraculous upset of the United States. In the semifinals, they met an American squad filled with star NBA players. The pre-1990 days when the Soviets put players on the court who were amateurs in name only was no more. Those virtual professionals had been heavily subsidized by the Soviet state.

Now it was the United States sporting a team with real professionals, taken straight from the NBA, the world’s premier basketball league. All-stars such as Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett faced off against a Lithuania team with only two players who would make it to the NBA, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songaila. And both Jasikevicius and Songaila would be journeymen at best. What the Lithuanians had in their favor was a cohesive team that had mastered the fundamentals of basketball. These traits helped them push the American squad to the limit. They nearly became the first team to defeat American professionals in the Olympics, losing a close contest by just two points.

Sarunas Marciulionis - one of Lithuania's greatest basketball stars

Sarunas Marciulionis – one of Lithuania’s greatest basketball stars (Credit: 517design)

A Victorious Expression – Nationalistic Sentiments
Lithuania has secured its place as one of the more formidable basketball teams in the world, a threat to beat the very best. That tradition has continued during the 21st century, with a couple of fourth place finishes in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. In addition, they won the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2010. Basketball is a crucial part of life for most Lithuanians, acting as an expression of sporting prowess and nationalistic sentiment. It allows this small, relatively quiet nation a place on the world stage. A place where they can take on all comers and enjoy the pride and pleasure of victory.