Capital Of The Great Hungarian Plain – Discovering Debrecen: Arrested Development (For The Love of Hungary Part 16)

The remarkable thing about my first visit to Debrecen was that I remembered anything about it at all. For many people, Debrecen can be an entirely forgettable experience. It is not a love at first sight city, more like a one-night stand with a harlot who offers the fleeting promise of passion. My problem with visiting Debrecen had to do with great expectations gone wrong. Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary. As such, those who come for a visit may be forgiven for expecting something more than a Belvaros (Inner city) largely lacking in memorable architecture or atmospherics, especially when compared to the elegant old towns of such Hungarian cities as Gyor, Pecs, Sopron, Szeged and Szekesfehervar. Since most foreign visitors to Debrecen have already been in the western part of Hungary, they probably visited one of those more attractive cities. This leaves an indelible impression upon the senses. Debrecen cannot help but pale in comparison.

The way it was meant to be - Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

The way it was meant to be – Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

Along A Fluid Frontier– At The Mercy Of Others
As a first-time visitor, I wrongly assumed that Debrecen would be much the same as all those other Hungarian cities that had left me starry eyed. I soon discovered that Debrecen is fundamentally different from other Hungarian cities, in many ways reflecting the difference between eastern and western Hungary. It has been my experience that cities tend to develop based on the topography that surrounds them. For instance, the confluence of the Raba, Rabca and Danube Rivers around the city of Gyor defined much of its early development.  Debrecen is not much different in this regard. The city is set out on the fertile featureless flatland of the Great Hungarian Plain. As such Debrecen has plenty of room to sprawl. On my first forays into the city, it seemed to go on in a multitude of directions without any discernible boundary. I felt as though the buildings had been scattered about with little regard for architectural symmetry. Much of this had to do, through no fault of Debrecen’s city administrators across the ages, with topography and history. The former influencing the latter. With no physical barriers anywhere near the city it could develop equally in any direction. Furthermore, the lack of obstacles meant it was also at the mercy of invaders, most prominently during the Ottoman era in Hungarian history from 1526 to 1686.

During those times, Debrecen was situated along a fluid frontier riven by an alarming amount of violence. Such venal activities as plundering, pillaging and slave raiding were commonplace. Low intensity warfare occurred for decades without end. This forced Debrecen into multifaceted deals to retain some degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. At one point, the city was forced to pay simultaneous financial tributes to the Ottoman Sultan, Habsburg Emperor and Prince of Transylvania. It was an unenviable position to be in. Consequently, this situation also affected the city’s spiritual and cultural development. During this period, Protestantism in the form of Calvinism sunk deep roots in the dark and dusty soil.  Roots that would eventually resist the counter-reformation. A visitor will search Debrecen largely in vain for those Baroque Catholic churches that can be found in other Hungarian cities further to the west. This is because for a 160-year period the building of Catholic churches was not permitted anywhere in the city.

Stock market - Horse market near Debrecen

Stock market – Horse market near Debrecen (Credit: Alexander von Bensa)

A Hungarian Frontier Town – In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
Besides Calvinism, the greatest influence on the city’s historical development was the cattle trade which enriched many of its most prominent merchants. These men held vast tracts of land out on the surrounding plain which they would lease to herdsmen and shepherds. Grazing spread across the plain, tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses were fattened up on the grasslands, then driven to market. Debrecen became the center for this trade, which boosted the city’s growth beyond what might have been expected for a city that lacked a river or any other defining topographic feature. In short, Debrecen grew into a large city because economic trade demanded and subsequently enriched it. By its very nature, the grazing industry is a largely nomadic and dispersed activity, thus it not surprising that Debrecen took on many of the qualities associated with a pastoral frontier. Imagine a Cowtown on the Great Plains of the United States such as Abilene or Dodge City, its streets beset with whirlwinds of dust in the summer and quagmires of mud in the spring and autumn. Reports from 19th century travelers, such as the Englishman John Paget, describe Debrecen in such a manner.

Debrecen has been as unlucky in its modern history, as it was in the early modern period. The reason that it lacks in historical architecture is due to warfare. Parts of the city were obliterated or badly damaged by both aerial bombardment and ground fighting during World War II. American bombers leveled its railroad marshalling yards and targeted other industrial infrastructure. A large tank battle on the city’s outskirts between German and Soviet forces occurred in the latter part of 1944. Structures that were rebuilt in its aftermath, the main train station being the most notable example, have no architectural qualities to recommend them other than stolidity, function over form and the use of a kazillion tons of concrete. Debrecen is pockmarked with such communist era monstrosities. Fortunately, it does have a few architectural calling cards that manage to draw tourists to the city, foremost among these is the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom).

Symbol of the city - The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground

Symbol of the city – The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground (Credit: gelledina)

An Architectural Illusion – A Portal Of Protestantism
To say the Great Reformed Church is the main draw for tourism in Debrecen does it a disservice. It is also the city’s most recognizable symbol. Anyone who has visited Debrecen is bound to have seen its classically inspired yellow façade, glowing brightly at the end of Piac Utca (Market Street). Due to its role as a hub of Protestantism in Hungary, Debrecen has been called the Calvinist Rome. This oxymoronic appendage weds together two disparate ideals. The stern rigidity of Calvinist doctrine with the grandeur of Rome. The same could be said for the Great Reformed Church, its splendid twin towered exterior could not possibly be a greater contrast to its austere interior. Upon entering, I questioned whether I had been transported through a portal of architectural illusion. To understand Debrecen, I would first have to understand the Great Reformed Church.

Making Ends Meet – Metro Line 3: Riding The Blue Line Beneath Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 15)

I always wondered what it must be like for Budapestians. A trip all the way across Metro Line 3 (the Blue Line) from one end to the other was on mind. I was sure many people had done it, but none of them were me. This gap in my Hungarian travel experiences was in direct contrast to my continuous usage of the line. My usual daily journey would start at Kobanya-Kispest and end at Ferenc Deak ter. A few times I went a bit further, onward to Nyugati Palyudvar where I would catch trains leaving the railway station located high above the metro. Beyond that, Line 3 was pretty much terra incognita for me. The only exceptions were a couple of times I accidentally traveled on to Lehel ter, one stop down from Nyugati. This only happened because I was not paying attention to the stops. Truth be told, I never really had any reason to go further northward on Line 3 than Nyugati. Much of this had to do with the fact that I relied heavily on guidebooks to decide where to go and what to see. This was especially true on my first several visits to the city, limiting my forays to the northern part of the city.

Beyond Nyugati, the northern stops on Line 3 were not mentioned very often by any of my guidebooks. For the longest time all I really knew about this area was that it went into Ujpest, which means “new Pest”. I figured the entire area must be relatively new and predominantly residential. In my mind, I imagined it as “a place where lots of people live.” I would later discover this to be largely true. It was not always this way. It took Ujpest over 60 years before it grew from village to town and another forty years before it was incorporated into Greater Budapest. The last part of line 3 was constructed in 1980. Ujpest was the Hungarian equivalent of the suburbs, a late bloomer by the standards of a city that soared in population during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

M3 Metro (Budapest) - The Blue Line

M3 Metro (Budapest) – The Blue Line (Credit: Vampeare)

A Passion For Completionism –  The Finished Line
It was around the time of my fifth visit to Budapest that I decided to travel Line 3 all the way from end to end. This was not exactly an arduous undertaking as it only required sitting down for 31 minutes while passing through twenty stations in just ten miles. Line 3 was the longest of Budapest’s three metro lines (now there are four). In the time it takes to watch an average television sitcom it can transport passengers from the southern to northeastern parts of the city or vice versa. I was under no illusions that riding one of the decrepit Soviet style cars that rumbled up and down Line 3 through a dark tunnel would provide me with any great revelations about the city. The only reason for riding Line 3 all the way through was to satisfy a personal passion for completionism.

Doing this would make me a legend in my own mind. I could wow strangers at social gatherings with stories of how I was the only person in South Dakota who had ridden to every metro stop in Budapest. I imagined their looks of incredulity, the whispering campaigns by acquaintances that I was manic and should be medicated. Nothing would make me happier or so I imagined. The idea had only dawned on me after the sudden realization that I had been to every stop on Metro Lines 1 and 2. Line 1 was easily the most appealing of the three from a touristic perspective. It had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its history as the first underground metro line in continental Europe.

With its quaint yellow cars and beautifully tiled stations, Line 1 was an experience in and of itself. It took in a wealth of attractions that were on every tourist’s must-see list. Line 2 (Red Line) competed with Line 1 (Yellow Line) it for the most attractions. It was the only line open at that time which went under the mighty Danube and into Buda. It could drop passengers at the Parliament or opposite it for a stunning view of the glittering fantasia that reflected off the river. Line 2 has the added attraction of being bookended by two of the city’s three main railway stations.  The Yellow and Red Lines get all the publicity, glamor and as a result the lion’s share of infrastructure improvements. Line 3 was ignored by everyone who did not use it on a regular basis.

Less than comfortable class - Budapest Line 3 Metro Car

Less than comfortable class – Budapest Line 3 Metro Car (Credit: Christo)

More For The Masses  – Putting The Public In Transport
Line 3’s unofficial name, Blue Line, could not be more appropriate. It is Blue Collar down to the cold, steel rails it runs along. Line 3 is working class to its core, everything from its start in the gritty post-industrial districts of Kobanya-Kispest to the faded blue carriages which look like the kind of comfort class Leonid Brezhnev would have designed for the proletariat in one of his few inspired moments. The Blue Line is a product of the masses in more ways than just its design and production. It is the work horse of the Budapest metro with a maximum carrying capacity of 800,000 passengers per day. It was carrying approximately 600,000 per day at the time of my end to end journey. That figure seemed to be stretching the limits of what the line could handle.

Daily delays caused by problems with the tracks or cars has become an increasingly common occurrence, as I experienced on innumerable occasions. The carriage would come to a screaming halt, jarring everyone from their metro induced stoicism. This was always preceded by the usual pops, cracks and bangs that made me wonder if the carriage was on the verge of disintegration. After a minute or two of unsettling silence the carriage would begin to trundle forward once again. There were articles in the news about how Line 3 was sorely in need of a renewal that had been promised for many years. My nerves were soothed by the thought that nothing worse than delays ever occurred. This bolstered a false sense of security.

The End Of A Beginning - Ujpest-Kozpont Station on Line 3

The End Of A Beginning – Ujpest-Kozpont Station on Line 3 (Credit: Christo)

The End Of A Beginning – Final Departures
What happened when I finally took my first and only end to end trip on Line 3? Nothing of note. It was just another ordinary day on the Blue Line. There were no delays, no packed carriages and nothing memorable. When I got to the final station at Ujpest-Kozpont I decided to go above ground. This would at least make the trip seem worth more than what it was, checking a box for completionism. I watched as people entered and exited the station, just as preoccupied with their own lives as I was with mine. The station would always be a beginning and an end for Budapestians, but for me it had become the end of a beginning. The end of my first phase of travel on Budapest’s Metro. I had now been to every metro station. It was time to begin something new, that was why the soon to be opened Line 4 (Green List) of the Budapest Metro was next on my list.

A Matter Of Interpretation – Heroes’ Square:  Wonder & Confusion At The Millennium Monument (For The Love of Hungary Part 14)

If I could have traveled back in time to visit the Millennium Monument in Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere) at the turn of the 20th century, it would have surprised me to see just how non-Hungarian the monument was back then. That was because multiple Habsburg Emperors were deemed important enough to be given a place among the colonnaded columns. The statues on display included ones of Ferdinand I, Charles III, Maria Theresa, Leopold II and Franz Josef. The latter statue would have been the most egregious to an informed contemporary observer. Though Franz Josef was still ruling what was then called the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Dual Monarchy) at the time, he had also been the Austrian Habsburg ruler during and after the Hungarian Revolution. Franz Josef had signed off on measures of oppression, such as the execution of 13 Hungarian generals at Arad that would never be forgiven by many Hungarians. Despite such feelings, Franz Josef along with several other of his Habsburg ancestors, had been placed in one of Hungary’s most exalted spaces. This state of statuary affairs would not last. The First World War and its aftermath destroyed the Dual Monarchy, leaving Hungary riven by revolution and the Millennium Monument open to new interpretations.

Changing times - Rally at Heroes' Square

Changing times – Rally at Heroes’ Square in 1939 (Credit: Bruno Pesti/Fortepan.hu)

Time For A Change -From Celebration To Confusion
If I had come back to visit the Millennium Monument in 1920 there would have been no statue of Franz Josef. The communists had taken it upon themselves to destroy it. Most symbols of the old imperial order were banished to the dustbin of history during the six months of communist rule in 1919. The counter-revolutionary Horthy regime would right (quite literally) this historical wrong by commissioning a new statue of Franz Josef. He would reappear transformed. No longer dressed in military garb, instead the former emperor was now portrayed in coronation regalia. The imperial was deemed worthy of promoting since Miklos Horthy was now acting as regent. If I had made a third visit to the Millennium Monument ten years later, I would have seen the recent addition of a National Heroes Memorial cenotaph that commemorated those lost in the Great War as well as the preservation of the Kingdom of Hungary’s old borders that had been greatly reduced by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon.

These changes, like seemingly everything else at the Millennium Monument, were not to last. If I came back a decade and a half later after World War II had ended, the National Heroes Memorial cenotaph was now nowhere to be found. All the statues of Habsburg monarchs had vanished, replaced with indigenous Hungarian heroes. Strangely all the new heroes on display had come from regions that were no longer inside the nation’s borders. Historic Hungary, which the monument was supposed to deify, had undergone massive changes since the monument had been first commissioned. Those changes continued until the communists solidified their hold on power, which would last forty relatively stable, but increasingly stagnant years. The only change of note was the reappearance of the National Heroes Memorial cenotaph in 1956. It had been altered prior to reinstallation. Language about those who died fighting in the World Wars and anything concerning the borders of Historic Hungary had been erased.  Through all the turbulent political changes, the Millennium Monument was still left standing.  Its metaphorical meanings had changed from celebration to confusion.

Getting to know you - Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument

Getting to know you – Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument (Credit: Karelj)

Know Nothings – The Slightest Of Ideas
Of course, I could not travel back in time and judging by all that had happened it was probably a good thing. What I knew of the Millennium Monument’s past had been the product of research from history books and travel guides. Despite the peaceful present, the experience I had at the monument was disconcerting in its own way.  Watching group after group of foreigners snapping photos of the statues left me wondering if they had any idea who these Hungarian heroes were. I was just starting to read a fair amount of Hungarian history, but I would have had trouble identifying several of these historical personages. If I had been asked to give a recitation of their achievements, I would have flunked the test. One of the oddest things about visiting Budapest is that many of the city’s attractions are so grand, so dramatic and so sensational that a visitor feels compelled to snap photos, feign interest and act as though they have a compelling interest in people, events or objects they know nothing about.

I doubt most visitors had the slightest idea of what Lajos Kossuth did other than lead Hungary in the failed revolution of 1848. A few might know from their guidebooks that Ferenc Rakoczi had an entire independence war named after him. They would also have learned that this was a war he had lost. As for Gabor Bethlen, well at least he was a Prince of Transylvania. Though he did not remind me of Dracula, he did look quite devious. And then there was Imre Thokoly, a hero who induced head scratching from everyone except Hungarians. Thokoly’s name was made for verbal butchery by English speakers who pronounced the h which should be silent. I later learned that Thokoly had also made a name for himself opposing the Habsburgs. Thus, most of the statues on the right side of the colonnade had been pro-Habsburg, then they became and stayed anti-Habsburg. Eventually the truth must come out.

In wonder & confusion - Heroes' Square at night

In wonder & confusion – Heroes’ Square at night (Credit: Paul Mannix)

True Heroes – Standing Up To The Test Of Time
The statues on the left side of the colonnade were of Hungarian kings who had been much more successful than those Hungarian heroes who had replaced the Habsburgs on the right side. I found these statues to be impressive, but not nearly as fascinating. Tragically, one of the selling points of Hungarian history and consistent threads that run through it is of resistance, failure, survival and then somehow coming out ahead. Only one of the kings on display fit this narrative, Bela IV. He lost the kingdom and nearly his life to the Mongol Invasion in 1241-1242, but then returned to rebuild and reign for over a quarter century. His name and feats were worthy of a place in this pantheon. True heroes overcome adversity and stand the test of time. The Millennium Monument fits that definition. It has been transformed by regimes both tyrannical and democratic, but still stands in the heart of Budapest for Hungarians and tourists to gaze at in wonder and confusion.

Click here for: Making Ends Meet – Metro Line 3: Riding The Blue Line Beneath Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 15)

Headed Towards A Confrontation – Heroes Square In Budapest: A Deep Romance (For The Love Of Hungary Part 13)

It was a late autumn afternoon in Kispest. Only a few hours of light were left in the day. As I left on Bus 68 for the Kobanya-Kispest metro station the sun was making a slow descent from the sky. I decided to spend this late afternoon visiting an attraction in Budapest. Where or what that would be I had not the slightest idea. So many choices and so little time made the decision more than a little difficult. Due to the late afternoon hour visiting a museum was not going to happen. I had already toured Castle Hill and both sides of the city along the Danube, so neither of those options sounded appealing. Then a certain place came to mind or maybe it would be better to say a certain space, Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere).

The name reminded me of where I had stood two and a half years before. On that occasion, I had been Intimidated by my first visit to the square, ignorant of its history and dumbfounded by the heroic statues that stood before me. Who were these people? Why had I never heard of them? They were all important enough to be called “heroes”, but I had no idea why.  The Millennium Monument of which they played a part was just as perplexing. Who was the winged figure that stood atop the slender column at its center. That first visit to Heroes Square made me feel less than heroic. I was humbled by how little I knew about Hungary and its history.

Headed towards a confrontation - Heroes' Square (Hosok tere)

Headed towards a confrontation – Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere)

An Elegant Throwback – Traveling Back In Time
My path for a return visit to Heroes’ Square took me first to Deak Square (Deak ter) where all three of the city’s metro lines intersect. Late afternoon public transport traffic was heavy, a human stampede rushing to make transfers for a final journey home. Fortunately, I was changing to Line One, used mostly by tourists because it goes to a multitude of the city’s most popular sites. On what was the first underground Metro Line in continental Europe (third in the world), I found myself passing through stations with names that went from the unpronounceable (Bajcsy-Zsillinszky) to the evocatively poetic (Opera and Oktogon) until the quaint yellow car I was riding in stopped at Hosok tere (Heroes Square), where I disembarked into the immaculately tiled station, an elegant throwback to an earlier era.

My reentry to the surface world consisted of walking up a single flight of stairs. Now standing at ground level, I looked back down Budapest’s own Champs Elysees. Here was the grand tree lined Andrassy Avenue (Andrassy ut), the boulevard that I had just passed beneath on Line One. Turning around, I now saw the spectacular open space of Heroes Square just a short walk away. The Millennium Monument, with its soaring column at one end of the square was silhouetted against the sky, with the Archangel Gabriel’s wings rising into a deep blue sky amid airbrushed wisps of cloud. The flanking colonnades added to the spectacle. I could hardly wait to cross over Gyorgy Dosza ter, the street bordering the square’s southern end, to get a much closer look.

Hosok Tere (Heroes Square) - Line One Metro Station

Hosok Tere (Heroes Square) – Line One Metro Station

Conquering All Who Come Before Them – A Heroic Pantheon
In a matter of minutes, I was walking onto the square where I began a methodical frontal assault on the monument. The openness of the square gave me the feeling that I was getting ready to confront something of great importance. That confrontation was with Hungarian history. The monument showcases a pantheon of Hungarian heroes, selected from eleven hundred years of conflict, conquest and consternation. It starts at the centerpiece column’s base, where Arpad and six other chieftains of the Hungarian tribes that first entered and conquered the Carpathian Basin are mounted on a pedestal, high above ground level. This forces mere mortals to look up at them.

Arpad and the chieftains on either side of him are portrayed as prototypical warriors, stern and regal, intense and unapproachable, the kind of men who conquer all who come before them. Hungarian history is not something most tourists are going to have much, if any prior knowledge of. Nonetheless, Arpad and the other six chieftains are probably the most easily understandable of all the figures portrayed at the monument. An observer can quickly discern that these men on horseback were quasi-civilized warriors. The kind of tough men who were fierce, savage and uncompromisingly tough.

As such, most tourists who ponder this group of sculptures likely understand that these are the first Hungarians in a long line to come. Comprehending the rest of the monument is not as easy. The archangel Gabriel crowning the column is symbolic of a legend that I had never heard. The story goes that Stephen I (Saint Stephen and the first King of Hungary) had a dream in which Gabriel encouraged him to continue the push to turn the Hungarians towards Christianity. This encouragement was taken as Stephen was crowned Christian king of Hungary in the year 1000. To that end, Gabriel holds a double cross in one hand and a crown in the other, symbolic of the intertwining of church and state in the Hungarian kingdom.

The Magyar Conquest at Heroes' Square

The Magyar Conquest at Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere)

Ideology Above Country – History In Hiding
Much of this symbolism was lost on me at the time. It was not until I later read about it that I became cognizant of the deeper meanings inherent in the Millennium Monument. I did find the angelic sculpture topping the column at 120 feet above the square to be highly impressive in its singularity. Perhaps because it stood so high above the rest of the monument, the column and Archangel Gabriel sculpture had not been tampered with for ideological reasons. This was not the case with the statues which stood on the colonnade. As I would later discover, heroes had not been hard to replace at the monument. Heroes’ Square was much too important of a space not to be reconfigured to fit the ideological whims of more tyrannical regimes that had ruled over Hungary not so long ago. This history was now hidden to all except those who dared to look deeper into the past.

Click here for: A Matter Of Interpretation – Heroes’ Square:  Wonder & Confusion At The Millennium Monument (For The Love of Hungary Part 14)

Seeing It Her Way – Through The Eyes Of Zsuzanna: Tragedy In Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 12)

It was hard to come to terms with the mockery I witnessed from that one man and his group of friends at the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. At first, I was filled with self-righteous anger. How dare they defile the memory of innocent people murdered in such despicable crimes. Then my anger turned inward, I was ashamed of myself for not speaking up. I doubt it would have mattered to them and might even have provoked further bad behavior. Nonetheless, it would have been a sign of resistance. Perhaps nothing would have stopped the man from engaging in an act that defiled the victims. He and his friends did not understand the magnitude of what took place on this river bank during the Siege of Budapest. This was not just a Hungarian or Jewish tragedy, but a tragedy suffered by all of humanity. The product of a profound moral crisis. This was not just about the victims, the “them”, it was also about “us”.  What human beings are capable of when they sink into the lowest levels of depravity.

What lies beneath - Danube River at Budapest in 1945

What lies beneath – Danube River at Budapest in 1945 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

A Coverup As Bad As The Crime – Watery Graves
Ignorance, indifference, carelessness, each of these less than desirable traits of humanity were on display by the man and his friends. These were, still are and always will be the ingredients that breed hatred. Constant vigilance is needed to keep virulent ideologies at bay. Perhaps those that I witnessed making such a mockery of the memorial would have felt a bit differently about their behavior if they knew the specifics of what exactly had happened on those dark days. I doubt they wanted to know. It is easier to look away or allow the memory to languish. That is an all too human reaction to the inhuman, but it is not so easy to forget something that has been seared into humanity’s collective conscious. The memorial was a powerful place that evoked fear, shame and disgust in me. Its minimalism made it that much more arresting.

The absence of any others sculptures or portrayal of the victims left much to the imagination. Me and my wife to be walked away from the river bank that evening with conflicting emotions. The memorial had left us with a lasting impression, but I wondered what could be done about the ignorance and cynicism that man and his friends had displayed. Perhaps there was a story they could have been told that would have put them in the victim’s shoes, not in a moment of mockery, but in one of disturbing reality. The kind of moment that could shift their attitude forever. If only they could have read some of the accounts of those who witnessed or knew about the murders.

It is hard to imagine innocent civilians being murdered within sight or earshot of other civilians. If the thought of it is disturbing now, it is not hard to imagine just how horrifying it was then. So much in fact that the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party members who were murdering Jews indiscriminately in the streets were thought to be increasing the chances of creating sympathy for the Jews among the city’s ethnic Hungarian population. At least that is what those in charge were worried about. This is what brought hundreds of Jews to the banks of the Danube. The river was a way to conceal the victims bodies, at least until it completely froze over. It was a case where the coverup was just as bad as the crime. The river was used to conceal the evidence.

In memory - Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial

In memory – Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial (Credit: Lisahy)

A Society Gone Mad – Turning A Blind Eye
On October 15th the first murders were carried out along the embankment. Just after sunset, 7:32 p.m. to be precise, the police report shows a “suicide” on the Danube bank. “Suicide” was code for murder of a civilian. For the next one hundred days, murders were carried out night and day in the same area.  There was no holiday from this horror. As a matter of fact, holidays were just as much an occasion for executions as any other days. Evil does not obey the dictates of normal society, instead it warps and degrades them through its intentions and actions. Documentation shows that murders took place at the on Christmas Day, 1944 at the embankment.

While doing background reading on what happened there, I was shocked to discover that in a city of over a million people only about 4,000 Arrow Cross militia terrorized an entire segment of the population with little to no resistance from a million inhabitants of Budapest. Outnumbered on average by two-hundred and fifty to one, the militia was still able to act with impunity. The police, gendarmerie and military largely turned a blind eye. In this case, silence was complicit as well as deadly. The executions were impossible to ignore on the Danube Bank. Daily life continued right up until the Soviets encircled the city in mid-December. People went about their business despite what was happening around them.

First-hand accounts demonstrate an incredible callousness from some civilians. Two women were reported as saying they felt “sorry for the poor people, but maybe it’s just as well, because then they won’t get a chance to take revenge.” Others coveted the belongings left behind by the Jews and were hoping they would not return to claim them. Some civilians were confronted by shocking scenes of barefoot, thinly clothed Jews being marched down frozen streets to the riverbank. When one man asked an Arrow Cross militiaman who the people were that he was leading, the militiaman sarcastically replied, “the Holy family”. Not long thereafter, the rattle of a machine gun announced another mass murder. And so it went on, from the hundreds into the thousands, until one day it ended and not much was left except for the memory of survivors and witnesses.

Zsuzanna Ozsvath - Holocaust survivor

Zsuzanna Ozsvath – Holocaust survivor

A Throbbing Heart – When The River Ran Red
After pages of reading and research I still wonder if there is anything that would cure the ignorance and indifference we witnessed that evening on the banks of the Danube. Education? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Some people never learn or even worse, don’t want to learn or understand. They cannot walk in the victim’s shoes or see through their eyes. If only they could see through the eyes of one girl deep in that deadly winter. The eyes of Zsuzanna Ozsvath, a Jewish girl who survived the murderous maelstrom due to the grace, grit and guile of her nursemaid, Erzsi Fajo.  While hiding out in an apartment house within sight of the Danube, Zsuzanna heard what she described as “popping sounds.”

She carefully made her way to the window and looked out to see “two Arrow Cross men…standing on the embankment of the river, aiming at and shooting a group of men, women and children into the Danube – one after the other, on their coats the Yellow Star. I looked at the Danube. It was neither blue nor gray but red. With a throbbing heart, I ran back to the room in the middle of the apartment and sat on the floor, gasping for air.” Zsuzanna knew that this might soon be her fate. A combination of chance, luck and Erszi made sure she survived. Zsuzanna never could wipe away that memory. As she later recalled, it was “worse than anything I had ever seen before, worse than the most frightening accounts I had ever witnessed.” No one deserves to see such an act of inhumanity, but maybe if some people did they would understand what the Shoes on the Danube Bank stand for.

Click here for: Headed Towards A Confrontation – Heroes Square In Budapest: A Deep Romance (For The Love Of Hungary Part 13)

Standing On The Edge Of An Abyss – Shoes on the Danube Bank (For The Love of Hungary – Part 11)

Strolling along the Danube embankment just before sunset had the potential to be a stunning experience and it certainly did not disappoint. As I looked west from Pest, the sky above Buda was fringed with light clouds beginning to glow in the deep distance. The sun slid down the sky and toward the horizon transforming these clouds into a kaleidoscope of pinks and purples. A few scattered contrails floated free of any other cloud cover. They were in the process of evaporating, mystical tracers that slowly disappeared into the dwindling twilight. The river reflected the sky’s seemingly limitless spectrum, a shimmering palette painted by the forces of nature. On the hills of Buda, traces of the many architectural wonders on offer were being slowly extinguished. Darkness began to close the curtain on the window of wonders created by the most brilliant Magyar minds. The only objects left distinguishable were multiple spires of varying height, medieval missiles shot through the past and into the present. There was a bit of autumn chill in the air, which combined with a light breeze, made the evening unusually evocative.  At that point It was memorable for all the right reasons, until suddenly it became memorable for more menacing ones.

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial (Credit: Nikodem Nijaki)

Stolen Shoes, Stolen Lives – From Desperation to Denigration
Myself and the woman I was soon to marry had begun this evening stroll from Margit Bridge, heading south along the river’s edge. Our plan had been to walk as far as the Chain Bridge. Along the way we happened upon a peculiar section of the promenade. A stretch that was home to one of the most disconcerting memorials in Budapest. A series of sixty pairs of shoes cast from iron were scattered along the embankment. There were shoes of every shape and size, everything from women’s heels to men’s workboats, the most touching were those of children. Some were unlaced, while others looked worn out and the worse for wear. Each pair of shoes represented an extremely disturbing story of life and death on the banks of the Danube. Here was the Holocaust reduced to heels, size nines and rubber soles recreated with an iron constitution. This was not the mountains of shoes to be found in the desperate bins of Auschwitz. This was a monument that evoked the individual over the mass, the neighbor who was not a stranger, a person instead of people. These shoes represented lasting vestiges of those who had been murdered on the banks of the Danube.

Beginning in mid-October 1944 and continuing onward into January of the next year, hundreds upon hundreds of Hungarian Jews were taken to the riverbank. This was a daily occurrence during those progressively colder and darker days. The Jews and many other enemies of fascism were driven down side streets toward the abyss. On the banks of what would become a frozen over Danube, they were forced to take off their shoes and sometimes other items of clothing. They were not asked to hand the items over so much as leave them behind. Handing them over was impossible because their persecutors had their hands full with ammunition and guns. After this, it was all over but the pleading, screaming and dying. This was the way a world ended, not with a whimper but a bullet, to the head or heart.

Plaque at the Shoes on the Danube Bank

Plaque at the Shoes on the Danube Bank (Credit: Tamas Szabo)

A Matter Of Life & Death – Powerful Reminders
Thousands died, while sixty pairs of shoes represent them as an act of remembrance. Shoes have been placed here because they were a matter of life and death, an especially prized item as the war entered its final phase. Some would go so far as killing for them. Trying to acquire decent footwear, especially during one of the harshest winters in living memory was difficult. Civilians wrested boots off dead soldiers or shoes off fellow civilians who had been killed in the chaotic crossfire during the Siege of Budapest. Members of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary’s version of the Nazis) obtained footwear in the most heinous way possible, they committed murder. The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial is set in the concrete promenade, a permanent fixture. The same could not be said for the shoes and boots that the Jews were forced to give up just before being killed. These walked away with their murderers, some of whom wore the footwear of those they had just murdered.

Theft is bad enough, but Arrow Cross members went further. They could have just robbed the Jews and left them shoeless. Instead, their actions were informed by the vilest hatred. They murdered with no conscious for their victims. And not all murdered for shoes, some murdered for no reason at all.  The Shoes on the Danube Bank are a powerful reminder to everyone of what happened in Budapest during World War II. The reason for remembering this horrific history is twofold, to commemorate the victims and to do so in order that it never happens again. And yet something happened at the memorial that beautiful autumn evening that made me wonder if lessons could ever be learned, much less taught.

Close up of the Shoes of The Danube Bank Memorial

Close up of the Shoes of The Danube Bank Memorial (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

The Greatest Shame  – Nothing To Joke About 
While we stood there contemplating the memorial and what it meant, a group of men and women who looked to be in their thirties walked up. They spoke English and were joking among themselves. When they first saw the memorial it gave them pause, it had the same disquieting effect on them as it did on everyone else. Then, after a few moments a man who was part of the group walked up to one of the shoes and tried to stick his foot in it. The others began laughing. The man did this several more times. He was oblivious to the look of horror on our faces, I imagine that everyone else who was a witness to this desecration had the same sense of outrage. The man’s friends snapped a few photos, then burst out laughing. The moment and memorial meant nothing more to them than what they perceived as a little bit of harmless fun. The shoes and those they represented were mocked without a hint of remorse. The group went on without a thought as to what they had done, but that minute has never left my memory. I am quite positive that everyone in the group knew what the shoes represented, but they really did not care.

Click here for: Seeing It Her Way – Through The Eyes Of Zsuzanna: Tragedy In Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 12)

The Re-emergent Revolutionary – Mihaly Tancscis: An Eccentric Iconoclast (For The Love of Hungary – Part 10)

On March 15,, 1848 a wave of popular unrest stirred in Pest as Hungarians came out into the streets and gathered to rally at the National Museum in opposition to Austrian rule. A large group soon took the growing movement westward. They poured over the pontoon bridge that led across the Danube connecting Pest with Buda. Thousands of Hungarians marched up Castle Hill where they proceeded to demand the release of Mihaly Tancsics. Tancsics, a radical activist who supported freedom for the serfs and better conditions for the working class, had been imprisoned at the Jozsef Barracks for over a year. Tancsics had been confined to a room in the barracks after being accused of sedition for the publication of a pamphlet entitled, The Word of the People Is God’s Word. From the Austrian perspective, locking Tancsics up made perfect sense. His ideals were revolutionary in a Hungary that still labored under serfdom, as well as imperial authority.

Mihaly Tancsics - Portrait of a revolutionary

Mihaly Tancsics – Portrait of a revolutionary (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

Falling Asleep On The Job – An Exhausting Revolution
Hungarians had decided they could no longer stomach Austrian rule. The imprisonment of Tancsics was symbolic of the heavy handed Habsburg administration in Hungary. The masses decided to take matters into their own hands. They gained an audience with the Vice Regency Council which ran national affairs. The threat of mob violence swayed the council to release Tancsics. The mood of the masses then turned celebratory. Tancsics was placed in a carriage that traveled through the streets. An adoring public welcomed their newly released hero. He was soon ushered back to Pest. Cheering throngs greeted him every step of the way. A plan was soon hatched for Tancsics to be feted at a performance of the wildly popular play Bank Ban, which was due to be performed at the National Theater that night. He would be the guest of honor. First though, he needed to rest.

Tancsics accepted an offer of temporary quarters. This would allow him to relax after an exhilarating and exhausting day. So exhausted in fact that he never made it to the National Theater that evening. Tancscis overslept and failed to make it to the play. The crowd had been informed beforehand that he would speak. When he was nowhere to be found, they grew increasingly unruly. The famous writer Mor Jokai did his best to speak on Tancsics behalf, but it was not the same. Overnight, Tancsics had been transformed from prisoner to hero. The energetic defiance of authority that his ideals provoked was right in line with revolutionary values. Yet the success or failure of the revolution would be based on more than one man or one glorious day. March 15th was a spectacular start, but freeing Tancscis was a relatively easy task. Freeing Hungary from Austrian rule would turn out to be much more difficult.

Mihaly Tansics - In prison during the 1860's

Mihaly Tancsics – In prison during the 1860’s (Credit: Karoly Jakobey)

Re-emergent Revolutionary – Power Without Promise
Tancsics’ popularity rose to unsurpassed heights in the wake of his release. This helped him gain election to the newly formed Hungarian Parliament. When the Revolution collapsed in 1849, Tancsics found himself a wanted man. Unlike Lajos Kossuth and others who fled the country in exile, Tancsics went into hiding. He was convicted to death in absentia, but several years later re-emerged. Soon he was back to his old revolutionary ways. On March 15,, 1860 Tancsics could be found attending a commemoration of the events that occurred on that same day in 1848. He was arrested once again. Soon he was back in confinement at the Jozsef Barracks where he would spend the next six years of his life. When he did finally gain his freedom for a second time, it was not because of revolution, but compromise. The creation of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary set in motion a golden era for Hungary. Tise era would turn out to be much less revolutionary than Tancsics had hoped for.

In 1869 Tancsics was elected once again to Parliament. In an era filled with renewed hope, the future looked promising. That promise did not extend to radicals such as Tancsics. He was the main advocate for transforming Hungary with an early version of what would today be known as socialism. He advocated for universal suffrage, an idea that was one hundred and twenty years ahead of its time in Hungary. He was for proscribing the power of landowners which would have to wait until the Communists came to power following the Second World War. His idea to separate church and state was anathema in a country whose identity came partly from its religious heritage. Tancscis also promoted equal rights for all, which was nothing more than a distant dream at this point in Hungarian history. Such utopian idealism failed to connect with a country undergoing rapid development. Socialism was decades away from coming to fruition in Europe and even further than that in Hungary. Instead, the Kingdom was ruled by an aristocratic elite. The major political change brought about by industrialization was the rise of nouveau riche capitalists who would come to haunt the circles of power.

Chasing ghosts - Tancsics utca Castle District in Buda

Chasing ghosts – Tancsics utca Castle District in Buda (Credit: Antal Kotnyek)

Ideas Before Their Time – Sacrifices Worth The Suffering
When Tancsics’ term expired in 1872, he began to steadily move away from politics. His eyesight had been irreparably harmed by his time in prison. This disability did nothing to stop him from continuing an intense study of one of his greatest passions, Hungarian linguistics. Tancsics had become something of an eccentric iconoclast in his later years. A man who ended up largely alone because his ideas did not fit the age in which he lived. He was a fervent ideologue, a man of unyielding principles who believed his sacrifices were worth the suffering. Though he was no longer involved in politics he continued to write and publish, paying out of his own pocket for the publication of his autobiography. Such efforts brought him to the brink of insolvency.

Tancsics ended up dying impoverished in 1884, but he was not forgotten. His body was laid to rest in Kerepesi Cemetery, a national shrine. In 1948, with the ascendancy of communism he was back in vogue, though it is doubtful he would have agreed with their monstrous brand of socialism. Exactly a hundred years after his famous release from the Jozsef Barracks, Tancsics’ name was given to the same street in the Castle District where the barracks were located. Twenty years later, the statue of Tancsics standing just outside the Vienna Gate (Becsi kapu) was unveiled. Fitting memorials to a great Hungarian. A man who should be better known, if not for his name, than his ideas.

Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

March 15th is the preeminent date in modern Hungarian history. As such, it has also become one of the most important national holidays in the country. The date is when the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. The revolutionaries began the day by marching through Pest reading aloud Sandor Petofi’s National Song (Nemzeti dal) along with their 12 Points for reform in response to the onerous rule of the Habsburg-led Austrian Empire. The most famous event of that day was a mass rally at the newly completed National Museum. There was another event that day atop Castle Hill in Buda which is much less well known than it should be. The culmination of this event was the release of a Hungarian freedom fighter whose egalitarian ideals and democratic radicalism was as much an expression of the revolution, as his liberation from prison was representative of the changes suddenly brought on by the revolution.

Mihaly Tancscis - Statue by Imre Varga

Mihaly Tancscis – Statue by Imre Varga (Credit: Globetrotter19)

A Surfeit Of Surnames – Gate To The Past
Go anywhere in Hungary and you will find a surfeit of surnames gracing the streets of cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods. Make a name for yourself in Hungarian history and it will become a street name somewhere in the country. Sometimes streets in famous districts do not always have the most familiar names attached to them, at least not famous to a westerner such as myself. This was the case with Mihaly Tancsics utca, which begins just off Besci ter (Vienna square) then runs along the northeast side of Castle Hill and ends not far from the Matthias Church. I knew nothing about Mihaly Tancsics and most guidebooks did not devote any space to explaining who he was or what he had done. I figured that Tancsics must have done something of historical importance to have his name given to one of the main streets on Castle Hill. What I did not realize, until I later did my own research, was just how much of Tancsics remarkable life story was connected to this area.

Mihaly Tancsics can be found just below the walls that still guard the northern side of Castle Hill today. I walked right past a statue of him, barely taking the time to notice that it had been placed not far outside the Vienna Gate (Becsi kapu). I had no idea who he was or what he had done to gain such a spot. He was portrayed wearing a cloak that covered the upper half of his body. In his right arm he held several books. It was an odd representation, open to interpretation because of his portrayal in such a benign manner. It did little to make me want to learn more about Tancsics. Considering what I would later discover about his life, this was a shame. The fact that a statue of Tancsics stands just outside the Vienna Gate is ironic. In a sense he has finally been freed from the confines of the Castle District. A place where he spent two different periods of his life imprisoned behind walls there.

Jozsef Barracks - The building where Mihaly Tancsics and Lajos Kossuth were imprisoned

Jozsef Barracks – The building where Mihaly Tancsics and Lajos Kossuth were imprisoned

A Restless & Radical Hungarian – Simmering With Discontent
From its very beginnings as the seat of Hungarian power in the 13th century right up through today, most people have come to the Castle District by choice. Mihaly Tancsics was different, he was brought here against his will. Most people, including myself, would like to spend more time in the Castle District, Tancsics would have preferred to spend less. Yet now Tancsics is commemorated just outside the gate that once guarded the road between Buda and Vienna. A Vienna that was home to an administrative apparatus that held the power of life, death and imprisonment over Tancsics beginning in the mid-1840’s. This was a time when Hungary had grown increasingly restless under Austrian rule. Tancsics was both restless and radical. He wrote and printed pamphlets that propagated ideas that were a threat to the powers that be. Prior to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 he advocated for universal suffrage, an abolition to serfdom with little to no compensation for landlords and equal rights for all.

Tancsics used the power of his pen to disseminate these ideas for publication. And he enjoyed the additional asset of authenticity. The fact that his parents were serfs and he had an intimate understanding of their struggle made his writings that much more powerful. Tancsics was a self-made man, who had managed to work his way up the ladder of life, from weaver to school teacher. He then proceeded to travel across much of Europe on foot. These life experiences gave him a unique perspective on the problems faced by the working and lower classes in Hungary at that time. The Austrian authorities had Tancsics arrested in 1847 for his writings. His ideas were too radical, especially in a Hungary that was chafing under imperial authority and simmering with discontent. He was imprisoned in the Jozsef Barracks on Castle Hill.

Memorial plaque to Mihaly Tancsics on the Joszef Barracks where he was imprisoned

Memorial plaque to Mihaly Tancsics on the Joszef Barracks where he was imprisoned (Credit: Janos Istok)

Further Than They Had Ever Gone Before – Rallying A Nation
The building in which Tancsics was confined still exists today. Ironically, it can be found on a street in the Castle District now named for him. In a room on the street side of #9 Tancsics utca, Mihaly Tancsics spent the year before revolution broke out in prison. Two plaques adorn the wall of this building, one tells how Lajos Kossuth – one of the most famous men in Hungarian history – was also imprisoned in the structure during the 1840’s. The other, just two windows down from the entrance, commemorates Tancsics’ imprisonment.

In Hungary both men are well known, but Kossuth’s fame transcends borders. He is an icon of Hungary and his portrait can be found in many English language history books on Modern Europe. Kossuth’s name and face are synonymous with the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He is the historical standard bearer, along with Sandor Petofi, of the fight for Hungarian independence from the Austrians. And yet Tancsics was much more in touch with the common man, the uneducated, the serfs and wage laborers. Most Hungarians in the 19th century had more in common with Tancsics than Kossuth. And Tancscis, not Kossuth, was the focus of specific events on March 15th which rallied the masses to go further in revolt than they had ever gone before.

Click here for: The Re-emergent Revolutionary – Mihaly Tancscis: An Eccentric Iconoclast (For The Love of Hungary – Part 10)

 

Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

For me, statues in Hungary are about cultivating memory and encouraging motivation. Helping the viewer to recall past events while motivating them to learn more. On the north side of Castle Hill, within a stone’s throw of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, I found myself drawn to a charismatic statue. Written on the stone pedestal upon which the statue stood was the name Kapisztran. The name had obviously been Magyarized, the –sz being a dead giveaway. The statue portrayed Saint John of Capistrano (Giovanni de Capestrano in Italian) with both of his arms raised in the air. In one hand he held a flag. His head was turned as though he were looking back at invisible forces imploring them forward into combat. Beneath one of his feet lay a broken and defeated foe, trampled by the victorious saint. Another man, below Capistrano, blows a horn calling on the faithful warriors.

This was a highly emotional personification, an expression of zeal and fervor. There was nothing abstract or subliminal about the message portrayed. I knew hardly anything about Saint John, but the statue communicated that he was a man on a mission, possessed by a fiery faith. Prior to stumbling upon this statue, all I had known was the name. The statue stimulated curiosity in me. The best works of art often have this effect upon their observers. Viewing this portrayal in Bronze made me want to learn more about the man. My first question was what did this Italian priest have to do with Hungary? The answer was more than I could have ever imagined.

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District (Credit: Scolaire)

Preaching To The Choir – Combating Heresy In Hungary
The present state of Christianity in Hungary is one of stagnation and slow decline. Much of this can be attributed to four decades of atheistic communist rule. In addition, Hungarians by nature are an extremely critical, some might say cynical people. I cannot help but believe there is more than a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to the Hungarian attitude toward religion. It was not always this way in Hungary. Hungarians were a much more religious people prior to the 20th century. Religion and national identity were inextricably connected. Faith could flare when under threat, especially from external forces. Such was the case in the mid-15th century. In 1453 the bastion of eastern Christendom, Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks and was now under the banner of Islam. The Turks immediately began to make a push through the Balkans, toward Hungary with the eventual aim of invading the heart of Europe.

At the same time, a priest who would become known to history as Saint John of Capistrano, had been preaching throughout Central and Eastern Europe. John’s sermons were a vehement defense of Vatican orthodoxy. He fomented against heretics. More than a few times, his preaching led to violence, most famously against Jews. His oratorical skills were such that Pope Callixtus III chose him to preach a crusade against the Ottoman Turks in 1456. This would be done in the hopes of stopping Ottoman infiltration into Europe. John’s efforts to garner support were unsuccessful in Germany. The Vatican sent him onward to Hungary, where he found a much more fertile environment for his views. His words fell on attentive ears as peasants and smaller landlords were persuaded to gather into an armed force that would try to repel the Turks.

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano - Preaching to the faithful

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano – Preaching to the faithful

Peasants To The Rescue  –  An Element of Surprise
Much of John’s success in recruitment was helped by the fact that the Turks were now approaching the Kingdom of Hungary’s border. His force was something of a mixed bag, part rabble. Many of them were ill-armed with scythes or other primitive weaponry, but they were highly motivated. They benefited from John’s firebrand leadership as he proved himself a man of action as well as words. This force joined those led by John Hunyadi, the regent of Hungary. Hunyadi and Capistrano kept separate commands. They advanced to Nandorfehervar (Belgrade, Serbia), which at the time was under siege by Turkish forces, led by Sultan Mehmed II. When the two armies met in mid-July 1456, the Turks outnumbered the Hungarians by a ratio of three to one. The Hungarian force managed to fend off the Turks due to some astute command decisions made by Hunyadi. These included lobbing tarred wood into a moat the Turks had bridged with branches. This tactic trapped many of the Sultan’s elite Janissaries before the walls of the fortress. They were then massacred.

The tide of battle turned on July 22nd when the unruly force under Capistrano’s command baited the Turks into a pitched battle. When this largely peasant force’s efforts began to meet with success, defenders under Hunyadi’s command who had been ordered stay in the fortress, climbed over the ramparts and joined in the attack. At that point, Capistrano decided to lead his men in an all out attack. Hunyadi then led his men in doing the same. This surprised the Turks who were soon overrun. No less a figure than Mehmed was wounded in the fighting. Both sides retired to their camps after a day of ferocious fighting. Overnight the Turks abandoned their camp, retreating from Belgrade. It would be another 65 years before they would take the fortress. The battle was won, but the aftermath for both Hunyadi and Capistrano turned tragic Hunyadi caught plague in the immediate aftermath of the battle, less than three weeks after the greatest victory of his military career, he was dead. Capistrano lived a little bit longer, but not by much. He too would succumb to the plague that autumn. Unsanitary conditions, which caused the plague, proved lethal to Hungarian martial and spiritual leadership.

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) - Turkish miniature

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) – Turkish miniature

Historical Echo – The Ringing Of Bells
Capistrano’s actions at the Siege of Nandorfehervar (Siege of Belgrade) have become the stuff of legend, one that still resounds today. This is the result of an order given by Pope Calixtus III. Prior to the battle, Calixtus III issued a papal bull ordering bells to be rung at churches all over Europe to remind Christians to pray for the defenders at Nandorfehrevar. This order did not make it out in time and was not announced until after the battle’s conclusion. Thus, the bells were rung, but in celebration. The tradition is still upheld today. I have heard them on innumerable occasions while touring the Castle District, a musical reminder of Capistrano’s efforts. One that echoes through the corridors of time, all the way to the present. A man on a mission immortalized in statuary and sound, a daily presence whose fire and fervor demands to never be forgotten.

Click here for: Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)

The focal point of my visit to Castle Hill was the Hungarian National Military Museum. I had been looking forward to going there for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was out of luck on this day as the museum was closed. I was a bit discombobulated by the closure, but before I could come up with a new plan I stumbled upon a fascinating relic of architecture. On the backside of the museum I spotted an old Gothic Church tower. It loomed over Kaspistrzan Square, a battered reminder of the intertwined fate of Christianity and conflict in the Castle District. This was the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, an astonishing artifact out of all proportion and style to its surroundings. It immediately demanded my attention. I did not have any foreknowledge of its history or forewarning of its presence, but I immediately knew that it was much more impressive than anything I would have seen in the military museum. The Tower sent me on a journey that lasted long after my visit that day. A journey deep into its fascinating history. A history of conflict, combat and conquest. A history of invasion, occupation and regeneration.

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene - Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene – Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

Beginning At The End – A Garden Of Scattered Ruins
The Tower is all that is left of the Church of Mary Magdalene. All other parts of the Church have vanished, victimized like so much else on Castle Hill by the catastrophic destruction unleashed during the 1944-45 Siege of Budapest and the vicissitudes of totalitarianism which was imposed in the war’s aftermath. Destruction and transformation are constants in the history of the Church. For the Church of Mary Magdalene cannot be thought of as the kind of architectural entity or house of worship fixed once and for all time, instead it has been shaped and molded by the varying extremes that have buffeted the history of Hungary and by extension Castle Hill. Instead of starting at the beginning in telling the history of the Church, perhaps it is better to start where I did, at the end.

My first view of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene was startling. I knew almost immediately that the tower stood as much for what was not there as what was. This was a place where presence and absence were inseparable. There was a garden of scattered ruins fronting the tower, providing rough traces of what had once existed. The Tower itself, like the Military Museum, was not open on this day. That made it no less impressive. I was forced to use my imagination to try and envision what it had once been like. The tower looked and felt medieval, but as I would later learn that was only part of its story. A view from the top would have been spectacular, but even from ground level its height and proportions had a way of causing dizziness. A sort of vertigo in reverse, induced while looking upward from the ground below. It had a Leaning Tower of Pisa like quality, looking as though it might fall at any moment. And of course, it had not fallen and probably never would, at least not in my lifetime. The present age is most likely not the end for the tower, more like another beginning.

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction (Credit: fortepan.hu)

The Separation of Church & State – The Conqueror Becomes The Conquered
There have been many beginnings for the Church of Mary Magdalene. The first of these dates to its inception back in the 13th century. It acted for the next several centuries as the Parish Church for Hungarians in the Castle Hill area. The German population had their own house of worship nearby, the Matthias Church. Each ethnic group was segregated from the other in religious affairs. A stultifying example of how heaven is informed by the human prejudices on earth. Back in those times, the Church was a fine example of Gothic architecture. It remained as such even after the Ottoman Turkish conquest following their successful Siege of Buda in 1541. The Church was the only one which was not immediately turned into a mosque. It managed to serve the Christian population for half a century. That was until the Turks finally decided to make it a mosque during the Long War (1591-1606). This transformation did not last out the 17th century. A Habsburg led army defeated the Turks in yet another Siege of Buda in 1686. The siege left the church badly damaged. And began yet another era in its history.

There is a saying that every crisis is also an opportunity, the same might be said about the aftermath of war. The ability to change things is much easier when something has been brought to near ruin. That is what transformed the Church of Mary Magdalene in the early modern age. The church was given to the Franciscans who tore down what was left of the existing structure, except for the tower. They then rebuilt the church with a single nave in fully fledged Baroque style. The Franciscans were eventually ousted after the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his edict closing monasteries in the latter part of the 18th century. The Church stood dormant for many years with only one memorable exception. An unlikely event which bequeathed a bit of fame upon it took place in 1792. In that year, the Church was the scene for Habsburg Emperor Franz I’s coronation. This was an eventful interregnum amid a long period in which the church was scarcely utilized.

Casualty of war - Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene

Casualty of war – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Live By The Sword , Survive Despite The Sword – A Final Testament
In 1817 the Church was handed over to the military garrison in Buda. The military used it to conduct services for the soldiers up until the outbreak of World War II, but it was militarism that would bring most of it down. The catastrophic violence the church endured during the Siege of Budapest left it once again teetering on the edge of extinction. Several years after the war’s end, most of the ruins were swept away by order of Hungary’s Stalinist dictator Matyas Rakosi. Only the Tower was left as an austere reminder, standing as a final testament to over 600 years of Hungarian history, a statement of ruin and rejuvenation. The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene bears silent witness to all those ages that have long since passed.

Click here for: Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)