Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

One Among Many Millions – Life Lost: The Tragedy of Kazimierz (Travels In Eastern Europe #47)

Krakow and the city’s rich Jewish heritage are inseparable. Tragically that heritage no longer really exists in human form. It was all but wiped out by the Holocaust, but many physical traces remain. These can be found in the district of Kazimierz. The district gained notoriety after the award-winning film Schindler’s List came out. Several scenes were filmed in the district by Steven Spielberg, who chose the district for its authenticity. Krakow’s suburbs were also home to Schindler’s enamelware factory. In these places, an entire sub-genre of Krakow’s tourist industry has developed. Visits to notable Jewish sites are now on nearly every city tour’s itinerary.

These sites include eleven different synagogues. As museums, they offer a window into the mystical, eastern exoticism of Judaism which managed to coexist largely in peace with Polish Catholicism for over five hundred years. That was until all force of life was taken from these by the Holocaust. The rituals and traditions of Judaism that were observed in Krakow’s synagogues mean little without people. Today only a single synagogue is still active in the city. That is because only about 200 Jews now live in Krakow. The human destruction of Polish Jewry is frightening to contemplate. In less than six years, millions of people and an entire culture were almost completely obliterated.

Kazimierz scene

Kazimierz scene (Credit: Barbara Maliszewska)

Looming Shadow – Auschwitz In The Distance
I was able to visit the lasting traces of Jewish Krakow while in the city. This led me to a looming question: Should I visit the site where many of Krakow’s Jews perished, the most infamous concentration camp of all, Auschwitz? It was hard to avoid thoughts of Auschwitz while staying in Krakow, since the site was only 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the city. Tours to the camp were advertised by multiple agencies. There were also twelve trains per day traveling between Krakow and Oswiecim (Polish for Auschwitz) for those who wanted to visit on their own. When I first heard the Polish name for the camp, it somehow made seemed less menacing. The German name had come to symbolize the Holocaust in all its horror.

A million and a half people had perished in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (Birkenau also known as Auschwitz II was an extermination camp).  That figure was twice the current population of Krakow. This was industrial genocide on an unfathomable scale. And it was the largest of several such camps that had soaked the soil of Poland with the blood of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and a host of other peoples from every nation of occupied Europe. Polish Jewry had suffered the worst of this cataclysm. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, 70% of all the Jews in the world lived in Poland. By way of comparison, today 40% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 40% in the United States. The percentage left in Poland is miniscule. In 1939 there were approximately 3 million Jews in Poland, now there are 20,000. 68,000 lived in the district of Kazimierz, only 200 still live in Krakow today. The Nazis campaign to eradicate the Jews in Poland had been monstrously successful and Auschwitz was the ultimate example of that.

Remuh (Old Jewish Cemetery) - in Kazimierz

Remuh (Old Jewish Cemetery) – in Kazimierz (Credit: Emmanuel Dyan)

For All The Wrong Reasons – A Detour Into Darkness
Auschwitz was the darkest day trip imaginable. I was curious, but loathed myself for such curiosity. No one wants to admit it, but many people are fascinated by Auschwitz, that is usually what happens when something that horrific has not personally affected you. There would be a human connection, but not an intimately personal one. Going to Auschwitz because of fascination felt like the wrong thing to do, while not going to Auschwitz also felt like the wrong thing to do. I finally decided not to go. The main reason I made that choice was a previous visit to another concentration camp at Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. It was nowhere near the scope or scale of Auschwitz, but I still carried that nightmare memory with me all the way to Krakow. It caused me to recoil at the thought of ever visiting a concentration camp again.

All concentration camps are awful, but some are more awful than others and each are awful in their own way. The one thing I never forgot from my Sachsenhausen visit was how the Nazis sometimes made prisoners take part in executions of other prisoners, ensuring that everyone shared in the guilt. When it comes to guilt, concentration camps have a way of spreading that feeling around, even to visitors who were far removed from them by time, place or nationality. Sachsenhausen showed me the depths of evil to which human beings can sink. Auschwitz-Birkenau would have multiplied that effect a hundredfold. Instead of visiting there I took the easy way out, going on a free tour of Jewish Krakow. We went through Kazimierz in the late afternoon, viewing old synagogues which were ancient by American standards and seeing a few of the places shown in Schindler’s List. The places were interesting and atmospheric, but I felt like this was more window dressing history than a deep dive into the horrific tragedy that had consumed the area. While many Jewish sites were still standing in Kazimierz, these were inert testimonials of a vanished culture.

Jewish youth walking in Kazimierz during the 1930s

Jewish youth walking in Kazimierz during the 1930s

Nightmare Vision – That Which No Longer Exists
Where were the people who made these places come alive? They were all dead. It was a sobering thought. Oddly enough, it was not the physical remnants of Jewish Krakow that left me with the greatest impression, but a human aspect that provided the most meaning. While touring Kazimierz I noticed a couple. I assumed they were Orthodox Jews by their dress. I walked past them on one of the cobbled streets. They would stop periodically to look closer at a building, talk quietly then walk on. I had no idea what their conversation entailed.

Watching them walk slowly away, it suddenly struck me that this scene had been repeated here thousands of times, on countless evenings prior to the Holocaust. This couple’s stroll was nothing special. That was until I realized that it rarely ever occurred in Kazimierz anymore. Daily life for Jews in Kazimierz, such as an evening stroll, quietly conversing, enjoying the atmosphere had been all but extinguished. Both lives and life had been lost because of the Holocaust. Those things we think of as so simple and so normal and so human, no longer take place for Jews in Krakow. A terrible tragedy, one among many millions.



A Paradise That Was Never Lost – Krakow: The Great Escape (Travels In Eastern Europe #46)

If Warsaw was an acquired taste than Krakow turned out to be my favorite flavor. It did not take me long after arriving in the city to realize that the old Royal capital of Poland was a jewel box that offered up a multitude of sumptuous treasures. The beauty of Krakow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) was a feast for my eyes. It was both quaintly charming and splendidly grand, thoroughly royal and invitingly homey. Spectacular, but on a human scale. Resisting the charms of Krakow was impossible. I gave in willingly to this seduction. It had everything, a world class castle, ecstatic Renaissance architecture, evocative neighborhoods filled with the ambiance of vanished cultures and enough history to fill a set of encyclopedias. It was one of the most enthralling places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking time and again that Krakow should be the capital of Poland. It is little wonder that following the movement of Poland’s capital to Warsaw in 1596, Polish kings continued to be crowned at the famed coronation castle on Wawel Hill. Such was its magnificence that Krakow could make royalty fall at its feet. I was no different, unable to resist its enchanting allure. My impression of Poland would largely be informed by Krakow. To the point that Warsaw became a faint memory. That led me to question how Krakow had managed to avoid the worst excesses inflicted on Poland over the last several centuries. The answer, luck.

Wawel Castle - A crowning achievement in Krakow

Wawel Castle – A crowning achievement in Krakow (Credit: Jakub Hahn)

The Unscathed City – Great Escapes
One of the most tragic of numerous traumas in Polish history was the partitions. Over the course of three separate, but similar instances – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 – Poland was carved into oblivion by ravenous neighboring states. Portions of it were divvied up to the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires. Krakow, as part of a region that came be known as Galicia, was fortunate enough to end up under Austrian rule, which was relatively lenient, largely respecting Polish culture. Nevertheless, in 1794 a revolt started in Krakow’s Market Square. The rebellion turned out to be still born, as it was rapidly quelled by Prussian forces who then looted treasures from Wawel Castle. Fortunately for Krakow, this turned out to be pretty much the worst of its suffering during that era when Poland was partitioned into nonexistence. For three decades – beginning in 1815 – Krakow enjoyed an exalted status as a nominally independent Free City.

Meanwhile, Warsaw suffered as a frontier and administrative outpost on the fringes of the Russian Empire. Tsarist control was extremely heavy handed with few rights for ethnic Poles. The same was true for the Polish population in what had once been the Kingdom of Poland’s western reaches, as they were subjected to intense Germanisation by their Teutonic overlords. Meanwhile, the situation continued to improve for Krakow in the latter half of the 19th century. The province of Galicia was given autonomy by the Austrians in 1868, leading to a wellspring of Polish intellectual and cultural revival whose epicenter was in Krakow. The city was proving to be Poland’s favorite child time and again, sidestepping the draconian measures inflicted on its fellow countrymen in other parts of the land. Krakow’s elegant Old Town sparkled radiant in the waning light of the hundred-year peace that lasted from 1815 through 1914.

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town - Kraków

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town – Kraków (Credit: Taxiarchos228)

Superficial Survival – The Darkest Of Ironies
Two cataclysmic world wars wreaked havoc on Poland. At least superficially, Krakow remained intact, but the human toll was tremendous. In the First World War, much of the population fled the city to avoid a Russian siege in the depths of winter. Twenty-five years later the situation turned exponentially worse, even though it did not start that way. On the sixth day of the war, Krakow’s mayor surrendered the city before it could be attacked. The Germans then decided to headquarter their General Government (administering occupied Poland) in the city. This meant that very few bombs fell on Krakow. While Warsaw underwent repeated waves of destruction, Krakow’s architecture remained intact. Inside museums and churches it was a much different story, as countless works of art were stolen by the Nazis. Intellectuals were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps.

The greatest price was paid by the city’s Jewish population, some 70,000 lived in the city when the Germans first arrived in 1939. Famously, Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews working at his enamel factory. While a heartwarming story, that figure pales in comparison to the approximately 65,000 Jewish Krakovians who perished in the Holocaust. By the end of the war only about 4,000 Jews were left in Krakow. Though much of the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz was left intact, the people and culture it had fostered were extinguished. It would eventually become a place for tourists, rather than Jews. Parts of Schindler’s List would be filmed there, bringing it much acclaim. Many failed to see the macabre irony in this. It would never have been used as a film set if a thriving Jewish community had still existed.

There was another dark irony to come during the Cold War. Krakow’s architecture may have survived World War II intact, but a focus on heavy industry by the postwar ruling communist regime inflicted much greater damage, especially in a superficial sense. This was almost totally due to Nowa Huta, a vast industrial development and planned urban settlement built as an eastern suburb to the city. The Nowa Huta steelworks was one of world’s largest. The pollution emitted from that giant complex left the city’s historic architecture coated in a sheen of toxic grime. The district was supposed to be a touchstone of enlightened central planning that would expedite the movement towards a worker’s paradise. Instead, it became a cauldron of dissent. By placing so much of the working class in one area, it spawned movements against, rather than for the state. Communism finally collapsed, just like fascism and imperial authority had before it, the one thing still standing in Krakow was its architecture, awaiting a restoration that would soon arrive.

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square - Krakow

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square – Krakow (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

Eternal Mission – The Peak Of Poland’s Past
The restored and preserved version of Krakow was the one I had come to visit. A city of superlatives, architecturally, culturally and intellectually. Here was the greatness of Poland, collected all in one place. Eastern Europe’s Renaissance city with an edge, a paradise that could never be quite lost. Krakow was a romance with many dark chapters, but it had arrived at a happy ending. This was its lot and its luck. Krakow always managed to find a way to escape and was an escape, at least for the Poles. The city acted as a hidden gate that led back to the glittering kingdom that once was and would forever be Poland. Now another golden age was in progress, the city was living off and building upon itself, realizing an eternal mission to forever stand at the peak of Poland’s past.


The Miracle of Warsaw – Poland Survives & Thrives: The Royal Castle (Travels In Eastern Europe #45)

A miracle as defined by Webster’s Dictionary can be ”an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” By that definition, I know for certain that I have witnessed at least one miracle in my life, that miracle is the existence of Warsaw. The fact that the Polish capital exists today is nothing short of miraculous. Most people are familiar with the destruction wrought by the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that effectively ended World War II. Less familiar is the calamitous destruction suffered by Warsaw during the war. From the first day of the war, September 1, 1939 until the latter part of 1944, the city was repeatedly under assault with its citizens brutalized by bombs, bullets and deportation. The architectural and human toll of these attacks is difficult to comprehend. Comparing Warsaw’s plight to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gives some idea of the immense scale of violence visited upon the city. 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed during World War II, compared with 69% of Hiroshima’s and 39% of Nagasaki’s. In 1939, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, six years later that number had dropped to just 422,000.

Scholars put the loss of life among Varsovians at over 800,000. To put that figure into perspective, consider that is more than the combined number of casualties suffered by the United States and British forces during the war. Following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a failed attempt to throw off the deadly yoke of German rule, it is estimated that anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 Poles were killed as the civilian populace was expelled from the city. There were at least two to three times the number of civilian deaths compared with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now some might say this is a skewed comparison, since casualties in those Japanese cities were the product of single bombs, while the death toll in Warsaw came from hundreds of thousands of bombs and bullets over several years. While that may be so, it does not lessen the cumulative effect of the horror visited upon the Polish capital and its inhabitants. The Uprising also led to the final atrocity against the city, namely its wanton destruction by order of the Third Reich.

The Royal Castle in Warsaw as seen from Castle Square

The Royal Castle in Warsaw as seen from Castle Square (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

Looking Old, Feeling New – On the Surface
Contemplating the unimaginable scale of the wartime destruction made the city’s resurrection that much more impressive as I began to wander around its bustling center. The Warsaw that exists today provides little hint of the horrors inflicted on it just seventy-five years ago. Oddly enough, where I sensed the destruction most was while walking around the Old Town (Stare Miasto). The entire area has been magnificently reconstructed, so much so that it looks a little too pristine. The wear, tear and grit of centuries was missing. It became apparent to me just how new the Old Town really was. I have been in many old city centers of Europe, but few have ever looked so immaculate. The one that came immediately to mind was Dresden, that city in eastern Germany that was infamously firebombed into a raging inferno by the Allies and has since been meticulously rebuilt.

Ruins of the Royal Castle in Warsaw at the end of World War II

Ruins of the Royal Castle in Warsaw at the end of World War II

In my opinion, Warsaw’s reconstruction trumps Dresden’s, in both its scale and detail. To begin with, a much wider swath of Warsaw was destroyed. Though the reconstruction used whatever remaining materials could be salvaged, much had been obliterated. One thing that had not been lost, were the twenty-six detailed urban landscape paintings, known as Veduta, done over a ten-year period in the latter half of the 18th century by Bernardo Belloto. These renderings allowed for an intimately detailed reconstruction. In fact, the Old Town that exists today has much more in common with how it looked two and a half centuries ago, rather than in the early 20th century. Despite the surreal nature of this reconstructed venerability, Warsaw’s Old Town is a resounding triumph of the Polish people’s will. It symbolizes the indomitable spirit that raised their capital city from the ashes of destruction.

Razed To Destruction – Raised To Perfection
The Nazis wanted more than anything to wipe Poland and its storied history from the face of Europe. Their efforts failed. The Polish response was to recreate the historic core of their capital city. Nothing better symbolizes that effort than the Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski) which stands at the heart of the Old Town. The elegantly styled Baroque-Mannerist castle almost deceived me into believing this was the real thing. With only minor exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Less than a month after German forces occupied Warsaw in 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the castle blown up. That did not happen right away because German experts in antiquities and artistic treasures were sent to oversee a thorough looting. It was only after the Warsaw Uprising that the Nazis carried out their venal destruction of the city, including the castle. By the time demolition crews were through, all that remained of the castle were fragments of two walls standing amid a pile of rubble. Six centuries of architectural and human history looked to have been all but extinguished.

Miracle of Warsaw - The Royal Castle as seen from the Vistula River

Miracle of Warsaw – The Royal Castle as seen from the Vistula River (Credit: Prorok96)

Following the cessation of hostilities, work began to rescue what material could be salvaged from the ruins. These mere fragments would serve as a starting point. Two and a half decades went by before reconstruction work began. Once it did donations poured in, chiefly from Poles now living in the United States. The citizens of Warsaw could hardly contain their enthusiasm. Case in point, when the castle’s clock on Sigismund’s Tower was restarted in the summer of 1974 thousands gathered to watch. It was set at precisely the same time as when the city was first struck by Luftwaffe bombers during the war. Ten years later the reconstruction was complete. The overriding majority of the labor, as well as the financial and artistic donations, had been voluntary. The end result was a point of Polish national pride. A nation that had been on its knees just forty years before, with the capital and all of its history at the point of extinction, had been brought back to life. That indeed was a miracle. I saw that miracle for myself while visiting Warsaw.


Worried In Warsaw –Alcoholics Synonymous: Binges & Bellicosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #44)

The Oki-Doki City Hostel was my initial destination in Warsaw. The name was ironic considering that I felt the opposite of relaxed. Sleep deprivation made me extremely irritable. The hostel turned out to be nice, unfortunately I was not in the mood for nice. I had slept for a total of ten minutes over the last 28 hours. I had a dull headache, was shaking like someone coming off a week-long bender and having trouble comprehending anything other than yes and no. Like almost every hostel I have ever stayed in, the place was a hive of youthful activity, with young backpacker types bouncing through the hallways to their own internal rhythms.

As for myself, I had two choices on how to spend the rest of this day, try to sleep even though it was midday or go see a bit of the city. My decision was made easier by the fact that I was sharing a room with several others. I had been unable to book a private room at what was reputedly the best hostel in Warsaw. Upon checking in I discovered a college age Taiwanese student and her mother hanging out in the room. They were very polite and well-mannered, but command of the English language was about all we had in common. It would have been exceedingly difficult to sleep while they talked. Thus, I chose to see what I could of Warsaw before the sun went down. I decided to make my way over to the Old Town (Stare Miesto).

Bottoms up in Warsaw

Bottoms up in Warsaw

When You Least Expect It –Liquid Courage
My earlier fears regarding theft on the airport bus were now all but forgotten. Warsaw was a safe, clean city. If there was anything to fear, it would have been hard for me to notice, considering my near catatonic state. My focus was now on taking a leisurely stroll. In a matter of minutes, I was striding into Warsaw’s Old Town, gazing at the beautiful baroque structures lining the streets. After a couple of hours of wandering around the area, I began to head back towards the hostel. I was feeling relaxed, surprisingly pleasant considering my lack of sleep. Two weeks of travel were ahead of me, I was looking forward to new adventures. Then out of nowhere, I came to realize the truth about that old cliché of how things happen when you least expect them to.

As I walked out of the Old Town three men were sitting on top of a short wall. They were talking quite loudly. From the large brown bottles in their hands I could see that they were drinking beer. When they noticed me walking in their direction, one man alerted the others to my presence. They conversed among themselves, looked my way and began to laugh. This was a signal for trouble. I braced myself for a confrontation. Sure enough, one of them began shouting at me, asking if I spoke English while the others said spoke in Polish. They laughed loudly and continued making remarks, asking me if I was an Englishman or an American. I was nervous, but kept walking.

It was now early evening, there was still daylight and other people were within fifty yards. If anything happened I could yell for help. When I was almost past the men, one of them suddenly walked right up beside me. He grabbed my arm and began to ask a question. I did not flinch or jerk my arm away. Instead I stopped and looked down at the man’s hand resting on my arm, then looked him straight in the eye. From somewhere deep inside myself I found a reservoir of courage and said, “you are messing with the wrong man today.” His face turned ashen and he immediately let go of my arm. Neither my accoster or his accomplices said a word. There was silence. I kept on walking, this time with a newfound resolve. There was a skip in my step.

Intoxicating Experiences – The Rule Rather Than The Exception
I have always considered myself something of a coward, this likely stems from my schoolboy days when I failed to fight back against locker room bullies. My default setting in the past was always to cower in the face of a physical threat, but in Warsaw I did the opposite. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the raw energy of unreleased tension or just the fact that at a certain moment in life a man has had enough. Whatever the case, the reality was that the situation was resolved. Unfortunately, this would not be the first or last time that I was confronted by public intoxication in Warsaw. The very next morning while out for a run, I noticed several men passed out among the leafy foliage of the Saxon Gardens Park. Then, after arriving back in Warsaw at the end of my trip, I got on a public bus in the evening which was to drop me off near another hostel. That was when I saw a man taking up two seats while crouched in a semi-fetal position. When the bus started up he began to scream loudly until he passed out, falling into an angry sleep.

These three incidents of public intoxication made me wonder if alcohol was a major problem in Poland. Of course, all my evidence was anecdotal, but these experiences left me with questions. I would later discover that drinking is illegal on the street, in public squares and parks in Poland. The minimum fine is 100 zlotys ($28 dollars). This does not seem to be deterring some people. Poland ranks #14 in the world in alcohol consumption by person. This sounds alarmingly high, but ten other countries in Eastern Europe rank higher, including Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and Slovakia, which all border Poland. In other words, Poland is part of a region where alcohol consumption is inordinately high. What I witnessed is more likely the rule rather than the exception in Poland and the surrounding states.

Drink Up – Prosperity & Its Discontents
Much of the alcohol consumption in Eastern Europe and specifically Poland can be attributed to culture. Making matters worse, the economic instability caused by the transition from communism to capitalism has exacerbated alcohol abuse. Yet economically, Poland has done much better than its neighbors. One of the more disturbing pieces of information I unearthed, showed that alcohol intake increased 30% in Poland from 2001-2012. Poland joined the European Union in 2004, which led to a healthy boost in prosperity. Nevertheless, Poles drank not less, but more since joining. I witnessed the trend of heavy alcohol consumption – albeit anecdotally – in Warsaw. One of my enduring memories of the city will always be of publicly intoxicated individuals. As my experience in the Old Town showed, there really was something to be worried about in Warsaw.


The Attraction of Fear – The Path To Warsaw: A Self-Perpetuating Delusion (Travels In Eastern Europe #43)

The seeds of my second trip to Eastern Europe were planted on the first one. While talking with Tim, a travel companion I first met at a hostel in Bulgaria, he mentioned his future European travel plans. He could hardly wait to visit Krakow, as it would be at the same time as the beatification of Pope John Paul II. From there he would travel onward to Ukraine. That caught my attention. Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union, a place I had never been, but was interested in visiting. “Ukraine? Where are you going in Ukraine?” He said to the city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. It would be an opportunity for him to see a bit of Ukraine and visit one of the most historic cities in the country. Plus, American citizens did not require a visa to visit Ukraine. At that point, I began to formulate my own plans for a trip to both Krakow and Lviv.  Flights to either city from the United States required multiple stops, in addition to a couple thousand dollars. My best bet was to fly into Warsaw, then travel south and east from there.

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Voices Carry –  A Transcontinental Nightmare
My excitement about this trip was tempered by the thought of starting in Warsaw. A Polish acquaintance from Poznan, in western Poland, had told me how much they hated Warsaw. They said it was a confusing mess that was not worth the bother. According to them, Krakow was the place to go. Others I talked to were of the same opinion. Warsaw might be the official capital of Poland, but Krakow was the real capital. I was also told to visit Gdansk, Torun, Wroclaw, but never Warsaw. My foreknowledge of the city was that it had been almost totally destroyed during World War II. The rebuilding had taken place under a communist government. The outskirts of Belgrade and Bucharest began to loom in my imagination, horizons covered with concrete apartment blocks. I was not looking forward to visiting Warsaw, but nonetheless I scheduled an entire day believing that it would still be worth seeing.

The trip required three flights and twenty hours of travel time for me to travel from the western United States to Warsaw. My final flight would leave from Amsterdam. This one would be the most grueling. I cannot sleep while sitting up, unless at the point of collapse. Nodding off is about the best I can do. Even when I am able to catch five or ten minutes of sleep, I awake drenched in sweat. I was at this point somewhere over Central Europe that a booming, thunderous voice in Polish came from a couple of rows back. A middle aged man in a business suit began to converse in the loudest manner possible. His verbal bellicosity was jarring. For minutes at a time he would pontificate at near ear splitting levels. Several times I turned all the way around in my seat just to glower at him. This did no good.

I began to wonder if I was really awake or if this was some sort of strange transcontinental nightmare. Almost as unbelievable as the volume level of the man’s voice, was the fact that not a single person around him seemed to take notice. The man he talked with sat rapt with attention. Everyone else slept, read or listened to music. Warsaw could not come soon enough. As the plane landed, the man stopped talking. I was shaking from a combination of anger and exhaustion. Like many of the people in life who have driven me close to the point of madness, my two-hour torturer turned out to be inconsequential. He deplaned in good spirits, while I was totally relieved just to arrive. Now that I was half out of my mind, it was time for me to collect my belongings and travel to the Oki-Doki Hostel in the city center. This was not going to be easy, since I decided to take the bus from the airport. That would put me right where I always want to be when entering a foreign country, on edge.

The attraction of fear - airport bus to Warsaw city center

The attraction of fear – airport bus to Warsaw city center

Moment of Clarity – Extra Baggage
My tension and fear were induced by the following sentence from the Wikitravel Warsaw webpage: “ (Bus) Number 175, which runs from the airport to city center, is reportedly infamous for pickpockets and sometimes snatch-and-run thefts.” Of course, I chose to take this bus. I could just as easily have booked a taxi in advance, but I was too cheap. My ulterior motive was more self-serving, some might even say self-flagellating. I was magnetically attracted by potential danger. In the weeks prior to departure I had spent countless hours reading and rereading that sentence, doing ridiculous researches about bus crime in Warsaw. Obsessing over the possibility of becoming a robbery victim made my arrival in Warsaw more interesting.

A logical person would have just taken a cab, but obsessions are never logical. They are grinding, gnawing and all consuming. Warsaw was a city I had little interest in visiting, but I did have an intense interest in seeing whether I could ride bus #175 from Warsaw airport to the city center without getting robbed. Of course, I was exaggerating the threat, but that was precisely the point. The tension I felt when boarding the bus was real. I was in survival mode due to a self-perpetuated delusion. My fear and paranoia were real.

The imagined threat, turned out to be just that. Bus #175 was half empty. The passengers were either tourists like me or locals getting an affordable lift to the city center. Everyone and everything looked to be totally normal. No one was eyeing my bags or sizing me up, for that matter no one was sitting closer than a couple of rows from me. Still I kept clutching my luggage as though any moment a life or death struggle would ensue. I knew better, but obsessing over a crime that would never happen satisfied a deep seated fear. That fear did not repel me, it actually attracted me. This was my moment of clarity. Fear was what brought me to Warsaw and I would carry it with me to the frontiers of Eastern Europe.

Olympian Achievements – Miklos Nemeth: In The Name of the Father

Hungarians have long excelled at sports. Their triumphs have been beyond all proportion to their size as a relatively small nation. Most famously the Hungarian national football team, known as the Magic Magyars, was the best in the world for much of the 1950’s. Hungarian football teams managed to finish as runner-up in both the 1938 and 1954 World Cup competitions. At the Summer Olympic games, Hungary has long punched up above its weight. The nation ranks ninth overall in the all-time tables with a total of 491 medals. This includes 175 gold medals. Only Finland has won more medals based on their per capita population. Hungary is the top medal winner among countries that have never hosted an Olympics. Almost one-fifth of the medals won by Hungarians have come in fencing, a sport they have helped dominate in the Olympics along with France and Italy.

Hungary ranks first all-time in medals won in the Modern Pentathlon and water polo events as well. The latter is one of the most popular sports in the nation. The Hungarian national water polo team has won the gold medal in eight of the past twenty-one Olympic Water Polo competitions and placed in second another three times. No other nation comes close to such numbers.  One unique record also held by Hungarians is that the nation spawned the only father and son duo to win gold medals. The two men who achieved this were also world record holders in their respective sports. Yet for all their success, the son found it difficult to live up the standard set by his father until one magic moment in Montreal changed everything.

Imre & Miklos Nemeth - The only father & son to win Olympic Gold Medals

Imre & Miklos Nemeth – The only father & son to win Olympic Gold Medals

Great Expectations – Like Father, Unlike Son
Miklos Nemeth grew up in the shadow of sporting greatness. When he was just a year old, his father Imre won a gold medal at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in the hammer throw. Thus young Miklos could never remember a time when his father was not an Olympic champion. Like father, like son or so it was hoped when Miklos began to excel at sports. There was immense pressure on Miklos to live up to his father’s achievements. His father hoped he would also become a hammer thrower, but the son instead took to the javelin. He was a prodigy right from the start. By the age of twenty he had thrown 87.42 meters in competition, which was only four meters less than the world record at the time. Great things were predicted for Milos, especially in the world’s most important competition, the Summer Olympic Games.

World record breaker - Miklos Nemeth making his gold medal winning javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

World record breaker – Miklos Nemeth making his gold medal winning javelin throw at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

Nemeth first competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Unfortunately his form was badly off as he was dealing with an elbow injury at the time. The best throw he could muster was 75.50 meters, nowhere near good enough to qualify for the final round. He finished a miserable seventeenth in the qualifying round. His performance at those Olympics signaled a worrying trend of poor performances in the biggest events. This would reoccur throughout the early and middle parts of his career. In three different European Championships, Nemeth placed no higher than fifth. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich he did qualify for the final round only to fall short once again, this time placing seventh. Though still relatively young, at twenty-six years old, it seemed that Nemeth would never fulfill his vast potential nor live up to the golden standard set by his father. The pressure of having a gold medal winning father in a small nation was more than Nemeth could handle at times. He grew frustrated by the lofty expectations placed upon him. At one point he remarked, “It is not an easy thing in my country to be the son of an Olympic Champion.” Critics thought he was looking for an excuse to explain away his poor performances. The consensus among the media was that nerves were to blame. Nemeth could not handle the pressure.

Delayed Gratification – The Winner Takes It All
In 1976 Nemeth qualified for his third Olympic Games, this time held in Montreal. Most athletes would have been ecstatic over such an achievement, but Nemeth knew that he was still judged by the fact that he was the son of Olympic star Imre Nemeth. This time though, the pressure was largely off. Miklos Nemeth was not considered one of the favorites. His results had been pretty good leading up to the Olympics, but he had been written off as a choker. He finished second in his qualifying group, but this did little to raise expectations. Surely Nemeth would find a way to finish in the lower echelons of the final.  No one, not even Nemeth himself could have imagined that he would wipe out a decade of failures in just one moment, but that is exactly what happened. On his very first attempt Nemeth let loose with a tremendous throw. As it flew through the air, he turned away, but could not help himself and turned to look back.

Miklos Nemeth - 1976 Olympic Champion

Miklos Nemeth – 1976 Olympic Champion

The javelin landed 94.58 meters (310 feet & 4 inches). No javelin had ever been thrown that far. To do it on the first throw, in the most important and pressure packed competition was incredible. Nemeth had suddenly and abruptly silenced all of the critics who had doubted him. His competitors were demoralized. No one came close to matching Nemeth’s throw. The second place throw was a full six and a half meters behind Nemeth’s. His winning margin was the largest in the history of the Olympic javelin throw. It was an amazing feat that not only won Nemeth a coveted gold medal, but would have been good enough to win the next two Olympic javelin throw competitions as well. The record breaking throw also meant he was now part of the only father-son duo to win gold medals at the Olympic Games. In many ways Miklos Nemeth’s achievement was much greater than that of his father’s. He had lived up to the highest of expectations, overcoming unrelenting pressure that had mounted over many years. After winning the gold medal he was now the favored son, of not only his father, but also Hungary.


For Which To Aspire – Hungarians In The Union Army: Fighting On A Far Western Front

While growing up in the American South the Civil War was an endless topic of conversation and consternation. Aspects of the war were analyzed in detail, battles dissected, generals rated, martial exploits of the common soldier told and retold. Everyone claimed to have an ancestor who had been on Robert E. Lee’s staff, while no one had an ancestor who had owned a slave. In early adulthood, I finally realized that the war was a hot topic of discussion for one reason and one reason only, because the South had lost. The stigma of defeat had been passed down from generation to generation. For all the glorious honor evoked by infinitely told tales, the harsh truth was that we had gotten our ass kicked.

Thoroughly beaten by those wretched “Yankees”, a word commonly used as both a pejorative and profane term. By “Yankees” we meant anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line. “Those people” who were from states such as New Yawk, Taxachusetts and Disconnecticutt. I had long been aware that plenty of immigrants had also fought for the Union, but I never thought any of them could be Eastern Europeans.  Then on a winter evening I stumbled upon a very different kind of Yankee, one that hailed from the Carpathian Basin.

Startling revelations usually arrive when least expected. Imagine my shock then, as I read the following sentence in Volume I of Shelby Foote’s incomparable history of the Civil War, “his (John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Western Department) personal staff included Hungarians and Italians with titles such as ‘adlatus to the chief’ and names that were hardly pronounceable to a Missouri tongue; Emavic, Meizarras, Kalamaneuzze were three among many.” This was the first time that I learned of Hungarians serving as officers in the Union Army. I found this information startling, but should not have been that surprised for two reasons. Hungarians had been arriving on the shores of North America, beginning as far back as 1583. Secondly, when the conflict broke out the Union was desperate for officers with battlefield experience. Many of the Union’s Hungarian officers came ready made for fighting, since they had served in the 1848/49 Hungarian War of Independence against Austria and later Russia that broke out following the revolutionary upheaval. The loss of that war led to a boatload of Hungarian military officers literally washing up on America’s shores.

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

Martial Bearing –  Exiled To War: From East To West
Of the several waves of Hungarian immigration to the United States the first is by far the smallest and least known. This wave consisted of the “Forty-Eighters” those Hungarian men of military bearing who fled the country after the revolution failed. The numbers were tiny by later standards of immigration, no more than two thousand Hungarians crossed the Atlantic. It is estimated that perhaps 400 of these fought in the war. That does not sound like much, but consider that there were only 4,000 Hungarians living in the United States at the time. As a proportion, Hungarians had greater participation in the war than any other immigrant group at the time. Furthermore, around a quarter of the Hungarians serving in the Union Army were officers. Thus, they took on a role of outsized importance, especially in the Western Department of John C. Fremont, the famous western explorer, presidential candidate and egotistical charlatan.

The more notable Hungarians who served in the Union Army were attached to Fremont’s command.  The most well-known, Alexander Asboth was born on the western shore of Lake Balaton at Keszthely to a prominent family. Asboth was trained as a military engineer. During the Hungarian Revolution, he served with distinction and became the favorite adjutant of Lajos Kossuth. Asboth came to the United States in 1851 along with the exiled Kossuth who was promoting the cause of Hungarian independence. Kossuth went back to Europe, Asboth decided to stay. When the Civil War broke out, Asboth was selected as Fremont’s chief of staff. He would later command a division at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Asboth was wounded twice in battle and ended the war as a brevetted Major General. This turned out to be the highest rank any ethnic Hungarian would attain in the Union Army.

General Alexander Asboth

General Alexander Asboth – (Credit: Matthew Brady – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Hungarian Chivalry In Missouri – Zagonyi Leads The Charge
If there had been an award for the most dashing and chivalrous ethnic Hungarian in the Union forces it would likely have gone to Charles Zagonyi. Zagonyi had served as a cavalry officer during the Hungarian War of Independence. When the Civil War broke out, Zagonyi reprised that role when he was chosen to lead Fremont’s personal bodyguard. Zagonyi achieved great fame from an improbable victory at the First Battle of Springfield which took place in southwestern Missouri in 1861. Outnumbered nearly five to one, Zagonyi led his cavalry force on three consecutive charges that scattered the opposing Confederate force. While high on drama, the strategic value of the victory left much to be desired. Zagonyi lost over a quarter of his force and was unable to hold Springfield. Nonetheless, Zagonyi gained lasting notoriety when Fremont’s wife – Jessie Benton Fremont – portrayed him as a heroic figure in her book, Story of the Guard, published during the war. Unfortunately, Zagonyi’s fame was fleeting as he was out of the army less than a year after charging into history.

Fremont’s coterie included several other Hungarians as well as many foreigners often dressed in elaborate, decoratively colored outfits. This led to criticism from those who visited Fremont’s command that the languages spoken there were unintelligible and the pageantry rather ridiculous. For instance, Zagonyi’s bodyguard was decked out in the garb of Polish hussars. The dark blue uniforms and headgear were little more than flourishes of vanity. Other Hungarians among Fremont’s most trusted confidants were better disguised, none more so than Philip Figyelmessy who brought an aptitude for espionage all the way from Eastern Europe to the Western Theater of the Civil War. Fremont also found a place on his staff for Emeric Szabad, the rare personage whose literary talent was matched by his military ability. He served with distinction throughout the war, managing to survive Fremont’s quick fall from grace to attain the rank of colonel by war’s end.

First Battle of Springfield - Zagonyi's Charge on October 25, 1861

First Battle of Springfield – Zagonyi’s Charge on October 25, 1861 (Credit: from book by Geza Kende)

To Admire & Aspire – Fighting For Freedom
Hundreds of other Hungarians fought for the Union throughout the war. They were not “Yankees” in the usual sense of the word as I learned it, they were Hungarians first and foremost. Military men who chose to fight for a new country. Fremont’s patronage allowed them an exalted position as officers in the Union forces. America offered them freedom and independence, something that their Hungarian homeland still did not enjoy. The martial exploits of the “Forty-Eighters” helped preserve the Union as a bright and shining example of a democratic republic. An example for all Hungarians to admire and for which to aspire.

A Question Of Character – Artur Gorgei : The Misunderstood Patriot As A Symbol Of Betrayal

I do not remember exactly when, but it was sometime during my first few years in grade school that the word traitor and the name of Benedict Arnold became synonymous in my mind. Arnold was the turncoat who betrayed the Continental Army to the British. His actions dealt a grievous blow to America’s revolutionary effort. Arnold’s reputation has not changed much in my lifetime. I have always felt the assessment of him has been quite fair. The same cannot be said of another supposed arch traitor from the pages of history, the Hungarian general from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Artur Gorgei. His turncoat status has been debated by generations of Hungarians. Some of these see Gorgei as a convenient fall guy for Lajos Kossuth. Others see him as the man who surrendered the Hungarian Army in an effort to save his own skin, while still others see him as a symbol of nation that could never accept its surrender. The most interesting thing about Gorgei’s reputation is that it is still in doubt and probably always will be.

Artúr Gorgei - misunderstood patriot

Artúr Gorgei – misunderstood patriot (Credit: Miklós Barabás)

Beyond Hope – Surrendering To The Situation
On August 11, 1849 with the tide of military affairs turning decisively against Hungary, its Regent-President Lajos Kossuth fled the nation. Kossuth turned over all authority to General Artur Gorgei who was leading the outmatched Hungarian Army. In effect, Kossuth had absolved himself from responsibility in an untenable situation while at the same time making sure he was safe abroad. By this time, the Russian Army had come in on the side of the Austrian Habsburgs making the Hungarian Army’s position hopeless. Gorgei was a realist, he knew that holding out would only cost more lives in a futile fight for a lost cause. It would not be long before he surrendered, hoping that the Austrians would have mercy on the revolutionaries. They would not, but the Russians saw to it that Gorgei escaped their wrath. Meanwhile, Kossuth who was safely ensconced in Bulgaria, called out Gorgei as “Hungary’s Judas”. This was the same Kossuth who had said to the nation at the time of his abdication that “all hope was at an end”.

If all hope had indeed been lost, then why was Gorgei to blame? Or was Kossuth trying to draw attention away from the fact that he had abandoned the nation at the time of its greatest peril? For their part, the Austrians showed little remorse. Most famously they executed 13 Hungarian military leaders at Arad in what is today Romania. Gorgei’s life was not only spared due to the intervention of Tsar Nicholas I, but he was also paid 1,100 gold coins by the Russian military commander in a show of respect. Though Gorgei used these funds to help his fellow soldiers, most Hungarians were swayed by the myth that Kossuth propagated. In the public’s mind, Gorgei was to become Hungary’s Benedict Arnold, while Kossuth was faithfully still fighting the Revolution in perpetual exile. The fact that Gorgei lived while other fellow officers were executed made it look like he had surrendered in order to avoid the ultimate penalty. Looking at just his decision to surrender in isolation, it is easy to understand how Gorgei’s actions were misconstrued as traitorous behavior.

Artúr Görgei - later in life

Artúr Görgei – later in life

A Revolt Within A Revolution – Reputation Mismanagement
A more balanced perspective comes from examining Gorgei’s conduct in regard to military affairs in 1848-1849. A case can be made that the Hungarian Revolution would not have met with near the success that it did if not for Gorgei’s military ability. He defeated Croatian and Austrian forces in multiple battles, but also made a strategic blunder by failing to go on the offensive along the Austrian frontier in the first half of 1849. The resulting inaction, coupled with time wasted besieging enemy forces in Buda, allowed the Austrians to regroup.  To make matters worse, Gorgei and Kossuth had clashed several times over the conduct of the war. At one point Gorgei had issued a statement calling out the political leaders for trying to micro-manage his military decisions. He fought independent of their authority for a while in the mountains. A revolt within a revolution has never been a good idea.

Gorgei’s military acumen was too valuable for Hungary’s political leaders to ignore his martial talents. Despite the infighting he was placed back in charge of the army and campaigned all the way to the bitter surrender. Thus, Gorgei’s record during the revolution is one of both accomplishment and failure. His reputation, even without the surrender, would have been ambiguous. Gorgei shared a commonality with the controversy that surrounded him, longevity. He and the debate over his actions at the end of the war would not go away. Gorgei lived to be almost a hundred years old, dying at the age of 98 in 1916. He had moved back to Hungary almost half a century earlier, in 1867 following the compromise that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Gorgei was still a lightning rod for criticism with public opinion set firmly against him. On several occasions he was met with jeers and derision in public. He was appointed to several important positions, but could not take up these jobs due to protests. A group of his supporters were able to lobby so that Gorgey could finally receive his pension, but other attempts to rehabilitate his reputation were rebuffed. Only after his death did emotions begin to subside. Relations and historians took turns trying to answer the question of whether Gorgei had betrayed his homeland. His own brother produced a three volume defense on his behalf. The historian Domokos Kosary spent almost fifty years examining the controversy, producing a two volume study almost 800 pages in length. Both of these, as well as other works exonerated Gorgey. Yet he continued to be a polarizing figure, either seen as a symbol of betrayal or misunderstood patriot.

Artur Gorgei monument in Budapest

Artur Gorgei monument in Budapest (Credit: Skelanard)

Standing Stoic – The Attacks To Come
In 1998 an equestrian statue of Gorgei was placed on Castle Hill in Buda. This was not the first statue of Gorgei in Buda. There had been an earlier one installed prior to World War II. It had been damaged in the Battle of Budapest and the post -war communist government later melted it down. It was rumored to have become part of the material that was used to create the enormous Stalin statue that was subsequently destroyed in yet another Hungarian Revolution, that of 1956. The statue of Gorgei that stands on Castle Hill today shows him on horseback, looking rather stiff and rigid. Perhaps he is bracing himself with stoicism for the attacks on his character that will surely come.

The Ascension of Hungary – Marton Fucsovics & The Davis Cup Defeat Of Russia

On Sunday, September 17th the Hungarian Davis Cup team qualified for the 2018 World Group in a stunning upset over a heavily favored Russian team. Boisterous fans urged the home side on to victory. Seeing the cheering throngs left me wondering how many of those same fans were in the southeastern Hungarian city of Szeged in April 2014 when Hungary was mired in the lowest level of Davis Cup play. Likely very few and for good reason. Hungary had not been in World Group play since 1996, years of listless results had led to a downward spiral that found the team relegated to the Europe/Africa Zone III group. Zone III is the netherworld of the Davis Cup. The matches are best of three rather than best of five sets and the ties are decided by the first nation to win two matches. This zone is the preserve of such tennis lightweights as Andorra, Albania and Armenia. It was the latter nation that Hungary faced first on a spring day three years ago in Szeged.

Hungary vs. Russia - a Davis Cup tie to remember

Hungary vs. Russia – a Davis Cup tie to remember

Marton Fucsovics played a vital role for a victorious Hungarian team that triumphed over Armenia, Liechtenstein and Georgia in quick succession without the loss of a single set. In 2015, the Hungarian team completed another trifecta of victories while advancing to Group One. Progress stalled in July 2016 when the Hungarians suffered a defeat at the hands of Slovakia, only to avenge that earlier this year with an upset win over the Slovaks in Bratislava. All of these victories were led by the play of Fucsovics, who was in the process of becoming a one man Davis Cup team. Of course, there were others who contributed as well, specifically Attila Balazs. It would be Fucsovics and Balazs who were picked to play all five ties against Russia in the World Group playoffs this past week.

One Man Gang – Magnificent Marton
Though enjoying home court advantage, the Hungarians still looked overmatched. The Russian team was young, eager and talented. Their oldest player was just 21 years old. All three of Russia’s top players were ranked in the top sixty-one in the world. Conversely, the Hungarians did not have any players in the top 100. What the Hungarians did have on their side was years of experience. They also had Fucsovics who came into the tie having won his 12 of his last 13 Davis Cup matches. He had single handedly put the team on his shoulders in an upset win over Slovakia back in February. Since that time he had slipped into (and back out of) the top 100 for the first time ever. He was playing well coming into the tie, as was his countryman Attila Balazs. Nevertheless, no one thought the Hungarian team capable of beating Russia and for good reason, Hungary had lost to Russia (or the Soviet Union) all six times they faced off in the Davis Cup.

A dynamic doubles duo - Marton Fucsovics & Attila Balazs

A dynamic doubles duo – Marton Fucsovics & Attila Balazs

This time would be different. The Hungarians had several advantages, not only were they playing at home, but they chose to play the tie on slow red clay. Both Fucsovics and Balazs had played the week before on the surface at a challenger in Genoa, Italy. While Andrey Rubelev and Karen Khachanov, Russia’s two top players, had been playing in the United States on hard courts for their last several tournaments. Experience was also a decisive factor in the outcome. The 19-year old Rubelev had never played a Davis Cup match before on red clay. Between the two of them, Fucsovics and Balazs had played three times as many ties The surface advantage coupled with an edge in experience for Hungary can hardly be overstated. They needed all the help they could get to overcome the raw talent of the Russians.  Fucsovics did just this in the first tie. He raced out to a two sets to love lead over the much higher ranked Rubelev. He then hung on to win the fifth set. This victory was crucial because Attila Balazs was unable to eke out a victory over Khachanov. With the match tied at a set apiece, a long and tense third set tiebreaker proved decisive when Khachanov won it 14 – 12. He then easily closed out the match 6-1 in the fourth set.

Brilliance In Budapest – Overcoming The Odds…And Fatigue
Both the victorious Fucsovics and the defeated Balazs looked like to be physically exhausted after the first day. Fatigue was an issue since both men were slated to play every match in the tie. If Hungary lost the doubles, it was likely that a 1 – 2 deficit would be too much to overcome. Fucsovics and Balazs did not let the situation come to that. They played a splendid match, returning serve much better than their Russian foes to win in straight sets. The victory gave Hungary two chances to win the tie on the third and final day. Their best opportunity would come in the fourth rubber as Fucsovics faced Karen Khachanov. Though Khachanov was the highest ranked player on either team at #32, he had struggled in Davis Cup play, with a less than stellar 2-3 record in singles. This, along with Fucsovics form, was enough to give the Hungarians a realistic chance of an improbable victory.

The moment of glory - Marton Fucsovics celebrates winning the final point for Hungary

The moment of glory – Marton Fucsovics celebrates winning the final point for Hungary

Fucsovics did the best thing he possibly could by starting the match strong, winning the first set 7-5. Uniquely, he won more points on his second serve than his first. He also returned well enough to gain four break points, two of which he converted. His fast start whipped the crowd into a frenzy which was only matched by the biting, windy conditions that beset the Kopazsi Dam facility in Budapest. Fucsovics continued to play at the highest level as he took the next two sets and match. Hungary was finally  through to the World Group. Twenty-one years of futility and frustration evaporated in a matter of moments. The Hungarians had done the unexpected and in the process put their nation back on the international tennis map. Can they continue their winning ways in the 2018 World Group? It is improbable, but not impossible. Led by the rise of Marton Fucsovics as a Davis Cup stalwart, Hungary’s play since 2014 has exceeded all expectations. Whether or not their ascension continues largely depends on the play of Fucsovics.