An Affair With Sofia – A Bulgarian Beginning (Travels in Eastern Europe #1)

I always wanted to visit Eastern Europe, but to be quite honest I was scared. Fear of the unknown, fear of crime, fear of disappearing into some dark forest forever, overrode any fascination I had with traveling to the region. I imagined myself falling into the hands of the Bulgarian mafia or trapped by gunfire in some Balkan hellhole, men in Adidas tracksuits pummeling me to bits in Ostrava, succumbing to the fates after being duped by a scam on some provincial Polish train or being attacked by wild, rabid, stray dogs down a back alley in Bucharest.  Like all fears these had little basis in reality. Why would the Bulgarian mafia take an interest in me? By the second decade of the 21st century the Yugoslav Wars were a distant memory. I had no reason to visit Ostrava, let alone seek out the local Adidas clothed thugs if any even lived there. Of course, these imaginings were ridiculous and informed by reading too many back issues of The Economist and online Stay Safe travel accounts about places in the region. Nevertheless, there was something standing in my way, not physically, but mentally, an invisible barrier that kept me from making arrangements to visit the “unknown Europe.”

East Berlin Before The Wall Fell

The Way Things Used To Be – East Berlin Before The Wall Fell

Dreams of Decadence & Underdevelopment – Beyond East Germany
Technically I had already visited the region, dipping my toe into Europe’s backwater at East Berlin long after The Wall had fallen. On this trip there was a further foray to Dresden and the Saxon Switzerland. The problem with this part of Eastern Europe was that it had been rebuilt in the image of German prosperity. At one point I found myself just a couple of rail stops from the Czech Republic’s border. I debated making a dash across it to Hrensko, but decided to wait. I wanted to experience all that Eastern Europe had to offer, not just spend a couple of hours in a border town purchasing trinkets or declining solicitation by lascivious ladies of the night. Eastern Germany, despite its perceived developmental backwardness was too neat, too clean, too refined for the less than idyllic image of Eastern Europe I had in mind. Its communist past could only be caught in very brief glimpses. On the train between Berlin and Dresden I spied busted pavements, a gutted factory and a semi abandoned town. For some strange reason this got my adrenaline flowing.

East Berlin had its own share of concrete and industrial detritus to offer, but it was turning trendy with the smart upscale neighborhoods sprouting in districts such as Freidrichschain and Prenzlauer Berg. As for Dresden, there were plenty of concrete apartment blocks, but they were a bit too German in their tidiness. No, what I wanted was the mysterious, grimy, dark heart of underdeveloped Eastern Europe. The image I had in mind was a cross between extravagantly mustached, suspicious looking men chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes while Trabants crawled by squeezing 30 miles per hour out of  a 2 stroke engine mixed with hopelessly unfashionable, purple haired ladies speaking an unintelligible language in an obscure dialect.

I wanted the Eastern Europe of mystery and intrigue, the one still recovering from a post-communist hangover, a place that felt dangerous and edgy, but actually was safe and welcoming once a thick veneer of grit and grime was scraped away. The kind of place where the weight of history could be felt on the streets, behind every stoic faced Slav or Magyar was a heart of liquid gold. This was the image I cultivated in my mind for many years. Yet it was fear that still held me back from purchasing a ticket and making that long leap over the western world into my imagined Eden of adventure and excitement. Then something began to change inside of me, slowly ever so slowly while suffering a southern Montana winter my fear began to subside.

House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha

Dreaming of a nightmare – House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha (Credit: Nikola Mihov)

The Fear Begins To Thaw – Approaching Eastern Europe
Montana is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the winters are long, hard and all consuming. I had a good job, a great boss and independence. Nothing to complain about, except the fact that I was living at the end of a one way in, one way out 45 mile strip of icy asphalt. I felt both confined and cornered, my geographical location turned out to be a cure for anti-depression. Time started ticking slower. The clock suddenly had no hands. The brutal and bitter winter cold bit that much harder, my soul became buried in permafrost during days as dark as the night was long. By 4 p.m. the sun would be setting and the slow wait for bedtime had just begun. Life became one long shiver. Indifference and apathy ate away at my attitude. In the depths of those desperate evenings I began to dream of Eastern Europe once again. I may have been frozen in life, but my fear began to thaw. I began to feel the urge to travel farther than I ever had before.

I went online and began searching for the cheapest flights to various cities in Eastern Europe. After going through the usual suspects such as Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Warsaw I went further afield. When I searched Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, I discovered a flight for under a thousand dollars. From Billings, Montana I would fly to Salt Lake City, Utah then over the Atlantic to Paris and finally to Sofia. The last flight would be on Bulgaria Air. I had no idea what to expect from that airline, would it be Aeroflot-lite or a wing and a prayer. I hardly cared. The cure for my bone chilling malaise was Sofia. What did I know about the city? Next to nothing! My knowledge of Bulgaria was not much greater. From memory I recalled one of those insane Bulgarian weightlifters from the Cold War-era Olympics, who looked as though he could have been a bouncer at the gates of hell.

Looking towards the National Assembly Building in Sofia Bulgaria

Post-Communism illuminated – looking towards the National Assembly Building in Sofia, Bulgaria (Credit: Mir4o86)

Name That Capital – The Power of Useless Trivia
I did have one memorable personal experience with Sofia during my teenage years. In 10th grade French class, our teacher Ms. Twiss (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) was talking down to the class about American ignorance of European geography. She then took it upon herself to try and prove our ignorance, stating “I bet none of you even know the capitals of European countries. Can anyone tell me what the capital of Bulgaria is?” Reactively the word, “Sofia” flew out of my mouth. Ms. Twiss turned deathly pale. Her ignorance and self-righteous had been exposed. From that day forward she had it out for me. C’est la vie. How had I come up with the answer? I had memorized the capitals of every European country, along with many other relatively useless geographical facts, during a childhood spent pouring over the World Almanac. That day in high school French class, destiny had contrived to begin my affair with Sofia. Over twenty years later, in the icy depths of a Montana winter it was starting again.

“At Least It’s Not Szolnok” – Excitement In The Worst Way Possible: A Tragedy On The Great Hungarian Plain

Not that long ago I was having a conversation with an in-law about the dullness of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city. I am always astonished at how static and boring the city seems. Though it has a population of over 200,000 and includes one of the largest universities in Hungary, there is little nightlife and a palpable sense of malaise. Outside of the city’s main thoroughfare, Piac Utca, there is little to see and even less to do. The energy level in the city is extremely low. Street life and café culture are benign. The largest crowd I have witnessed during multiple trips to the city was at the mall, a nice, but hardly memorable shopping complex. Debrecen reminds me of suburbia in the United States, fairly prosperous, with cleanly swept streets and people going about their business in a dutiful manner. It could be called the most American of European cities. My in-law, who grew up in Debrecen, agreed with me about the city’s subdued demeanor and stultifying dullness. He then added, “It could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok.” I replied with nervous laughter. Our conversation soon moved on to other subjects, but his remark about Szolnok stuck with me.

Szolnok Railway Station

The Szolnok Railway Station – the 1970’s all over again (Credit: NordestOnTour )

Pass Through Place – Szolnok From A Window
I am always proud to tell people, for no reason in particular, that I have been to every one of Hungary’s 19 counties. It is a sort of trivial badge of travel honor. Who else can say that? Then again, who else would want to say that? The remark usually elicits puzzled looks. Yet for all my travels in Hungary I have never really been to Szolnok. I say “never really” because stopping at the train station countless times does not count to me as a visit. In the same way that the Midwest is flyover country in America, Szolnok is a pass through place in Hungary. It is the kind of city that one goes through very briefly on the way to somewhere else. When I have asked Hungarians what they think of Szolnok the reply can be summed up as a blank stare, followed by “I have never been there” or “went through there on a train many times.” Ask if there is anything to see in Szolnok and the stock answer is always the same, “well the Tisza goes through there.”

The city’s setting at the confluence of the Tisza with the Zagyva River made it a point of transit as well as contention for centuries. Szolnok must hold some sort of record for sieges in a Hungarian city, as it has been the setting for no less than 68 of them. With these came the usual pillage, destruction and rebuilding. The Tisza River is certainly Szolnok’s most memorable landmark that can be seen from a train window. Almost invariably there will be a few fishermen standing on its banks, staring stoically at their lines. Everything else is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain decades, concrete apartment blocks and a large, functionalist style train station that looks as though it came straight out of a 1960’s era Central Party Planning unit.

Former Szolnok Train Station

Former Szolnok Train Station (fortepan.hu)

Trains, Planes & Tragedy – A Crossroads In The Crossfire
Trains have played an outsized role in the history of modern Szolnok, for both good and ill. Just over a year after the first railroad was built in Hungary a one hundred kilometer stretch of track was constructed between Szolnok and Cegled to the west. The city soon became a major railway junction for trains headed in every direction across the Great Hungarian Plain. Transport links brought economic development and prosperity as well as tragedy to Szolnok. During the 20th century the city suffered grave damage in the aftermath of World War I and during the latter part of the Second World War. As a key transit point it was targeted by invaders from below and above.  The Hungarian Red Army battled Romanian forces along the Tisza at Szolnok for two and a half months in 1919. During this fighting, the railroad bridge over the Tisza was destroyed. Twenty-five years later, Allied bombers rained destruction down on the city, specifically targeting the rail yard and station. By the end of the war, Szolnok had lost close to 90% of its population. The city was rebuilt, but most of its aesthetically pleasing architecture was gone forever.

The railroad helped Szolnok prosper in the post-war period, but it also led to several terrible train crashes. One of the few things Hungarians mentioned to me when I asked about Szolnok concerned these disasters. This is shocking, but not surprising since the city is home to one of the largest rail switchyards in Hungary. On Christmas Eve 1963, 45 people were killed and dozens more injured when a passenger train slammed into a standing freight train. The crash was caused by an engineer failing to notice a red warning signal light. Then in 1994 a train at Szajol (on the eastern outskirts of Szolnok) blew past a false switch while traveling at 110 kilometers per hour, hurtling into a station building, killing 29 people and injuring 52. There have been a couple of other rail accidents at Szolnok that have led to deaths since then. It seems that Szolnok has had its fair share of excitement, but not the kind that would make anyone want to visit.

Tisza River at Szolnok, Hungary

Tisza River at Szolnok, Hungary (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

It Could Be Worse – The Appeal of Dullness
Is there anything interesting besides train crashes and the Tisza when it comes to Szolnok? I cannot say from personal experience since I have never actually set foot in the city proper. Furthermore, I have yet to meet any Hungarians who have traveled to the city for a reason other than to visit family. Because of its tragic past, I am sure normality to the point of anonymity suits the inhabitants of Szolnok. This is a place where history is a dark and dirty word. The future, like the present might be dull, but that is a vast improvement over much worse times. After learning about the city’s history, the phrase “it could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok” has taken on a whole new meaning.

 

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #5 Destiny – Solomiya Krushelnytska: Voices In The Background  

It was a voice destined to be heard by millions, a siren’s call that was heard across the world. In opera houses from Odessa to Ottawa, Naples to New York she performed before adoring crowds entranced by the strains of her sonorous vocals. She filled the halls with sounds of romance and yearning, pouring out her heart at each performance. During her lifetime she was received with acclaim. In the birthplace of opera, Italy, she single-handedly rescued Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. It was this and hundreds of other masterful performances that caused critics to deem her one of the greatest sopranos of all time. This was quite an accomplishment for a woman born in a provincial outpost, a tiny village in the poorest part of an empire that would eventually collapse. During her lifetime she lived under empires, republics and occupations with wildly varying systems of freedom and tyranny. Yet no ideology ever harmed her spirit, she was too singular and transcendent. After being trapped in the most lethal place on earth during World War II, she emerged unscathed. Her talent was incomparable, her voice unforgettable and her life untouchable. She was Solomiya Krushelnytska, one of the greatest soprano opera singers ever, a woman who sang her way from the far eastern frontier of Austria-Hungary to ornate opera halls around the world.

Solomiya Krushelnytska - a beautiful voice, a beautiful life

Solomiya Krushelnytska – a beautiful voice, a beautiful life

A Remarkable Rise – From Galicia With Love
Solomiya Krushelnytska’s life began far from the fame, glitter and glory of the opera world. She hailed from one of 19th century Europe’s most rural and impoverished regions, the far southeastern portion of the Austrian administered province of Galicia. To say she came from a backwater would be an understatement. Her birthplace, Biliavyntsi, was a small village deep in the countryside. A place that was notable for nothing. Krushelnytska’s family was part of the lower Ukrainian nobility. Her father, a priest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, held one of the most prestigious positions in the tiny village. The young Krushelnytska spent her first years within earshot of Ruthenian peasants singing folk songs while working the fields. At the age of five her family moved to another village on the edge of the region’s largest city, Ternopil. It was only a city relative to its rural surroundings. The population was only 20,000. Yet it was here that Krushelnytska first took the stage at the tender age of eleven. Her remarkable singing ability brought attention and recognition. She was soon sent to the Galician metropolis of Lviv, to further her education at the city’s conservatory. There she received a superb education in the performing arts.

The early period of Krushelnytska’s life culminated with her first professional performance at the Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet. This actually occurred before her graduation from the conservatory. She won critical acclaim for her performance, singing the mezzo-soprano in Donizetti’s La Favorita (The Favorite), while playing the King of Castile, Alfonso XI’s mistress Leonora. This and several other performances in Lviv gained her notice by the master Italian female soprano and opera diva, Gemma Bellincioni. With Bellincioni’s encouragement Krushelnytska traveled to Italy where she furthered her education in opera, both at school and on the stage in Milan. By the turn of the 20th century her career had soared into superstardom. Lviv had been a launching pad to greatness for Krushelnytska. She could not have suspected at the time that over four and a half decades later she would return to the city and become trapped there for the rest of her life.

Solomiya Krushelnytska and her husband Cesare Riccioni

Solomiya Krushelnytska and her husband Cesare Riccioni

Echoes Of Greatness – A Beautiful & Precarious Life
Between 1900 and 1939 Solimiya Krushelnytska reached the pinnacle of artistic achievement. She was able to perform no less than 63 parts in eight different languages. She took the stage in all the major opera houses in northern Africa, North America, South America and Europe. In the early 1920’s she set her opera career aside to begin what would become a highly successful concert career. Her personal life blossomed as well. She married an Italian lawyer, Cesare Riccioni in Buenos Aires. He was also the mayor of the city she called home during these years, Via Reggio, on the northwestern coast of Italy. From their house she could see the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean. It was a life of accomplishment and accolades, far from the unsettled atmosphere of her homeland which had become part of the Second Republic of Poland. She did keep a residence in Lviv, where first her family and later on, intellectuals, artists and singers stayed.

Following her husband’s death in the late 1930’s, Krushelnytska decided to return to her multi-story home on the edge of what is today Ivan Franko Park. It was the fall of 1939, the worst time possible to return. She became trapped in the city when Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union attacked Poland. After the city was turned over to the Soviets, Krushelnytska suffered under the occupation. Her home was nationalized, with several floors taken up by the Soviet military. She and her family were left to reside on an upper floor. This was a far cry from the beautiful life she had enjoyed along the Italian coast. The days of resounding applause, star struck crowds and critical acclaim were a thing of the past. Her destiny was no longer greatness, but just trying to survive.

Soon the city changed hands and so did her home. The Nazis set up where the Soviets had been. Her beautiful voice was drowned out by gunfire. Krushelnytska could only wait, but at least she was alive unlike hundreds of thousands of other Lvivans. Reverence for her talent and the fact she was an ethnic Ukrainian likely helped her escape the ultraviolence which rampaged through the city during this time. One can only imagine what Krushelnytska felt and thought during the war. After a lifetime of glitterati she was stuck near the center of one of the most dangerous places on earth. All she could do now was sing for herself or small audiences. She was now only one of many voices in the background waiting and hoping the war would end.

Grave of Solomiya Krushelnytska in Lviv's Lychakiv Cemetery

Grave of Solomiya Krushelnytska in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery (Credit: D.Rovchak)

Iron Curtain Call – Starcrossed Solomiya
Eventually the Soviets retook the city. This time they would stay. In a strange turnabout, nothing was taken from Krushelnytska this time. Instead something was given. She was offered and accepted a position as a professor at the Lviv Conservatory, the place where she had gained her first real schooling in the arts of music, opera and high culture. Her life had come full circle. She would spend her final years in the same place her rise to fame and fortune had begun, once Austrian Galician now Soviet Ukraine. She was no longer a star, just a teacher with an incredible legacy. One of the all-time greats, she could no longer be seen on the starlit stages of Rome, Milan or Paris. Solomiya Krushelnytska was only to be found in Lviv, her voice making its final calls from behind an iron curtain.

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #4 Memory – Before It Is Too Late: Deep In The Heart Of Western Ukraine

In the latter part of the 1930’s a group of Polish soldiers were patrolling in the village of Susk. This small, rural community was located in Volhynia, a province in the eastern reaches of Poland. Volhynia, along with Galicia, was where the majority of the Second Republic of Poland’s Ukrainian citizens lived. Poles were a distinct minority in the province despite a concerted effort by the Polish government that resettled tens of thousands of ethnic Poles in the region during the 1920’s and 30’s. The Polish government was deeply insecure about their control over the region. They had good reason to be. Ukrainian nationalists and the Polish provincial administration had been involved in a simmering conflict throughout most of the inter-war period. The government became increasingly suspicious of all Ukrainians. This suspicion was passed on to the army. The soldiers were on edge. Many of them took out their fear and anger on the local population.

A Memory Recovered

(Credit: Edwin Smith)

A Volhynian Memory – Through The Eyes Of A Child
The repression that occurred in the late 1930’s across the remote border province was a precursor for much worse that was to come in Volhynia during World War II, when the Ukrainians and Poles would fight a war within a war. This bit of history is largely absent from the European historical conscious and the historiography of the Second World War. It has been overshadowed by the all-consuming violence of the Eastern Front. How can someone learn what happened between Poles and Ukrainians in Volhynia? The answer is to ask. An elderly woman who grew up in Susk was asked what she remembered from that time. Instead of talking about the Soviet and German occupations, she instead discussed, likely for the first time in decades, what she saw and experienced as a child when Polish soldiers came to her family’s small home in the late 1930’s. Her story was as follows:

“A group of Polish soldiers showed up at their home. They began to harass the family with questions. An impromptu and intimidating interrogation ensued. One of the soldiers began shouting at her older sister, who was only a teenager. Meanwhile, the younger sister and other family members watched helplessly as the soldier ordered the teenage girl to lie down on her stomach. He then began to violently whip her across the back. She was soon in tears from the violent thrashing. All the while her child sister looked on fearfully. Would she be next? What other horrors were to come? Finally the soldier stopped. He ordered the girl to stand up and told her to say “Thank you sir.” She repeated those words. The soldiers left.”

World War II Monument in Susk

World War II Monument in Susk

Imagination Faces Reality – A Memory Recovered
Hearing this story I could sense the sinister, menacing shadow of violence that fell over Volhynia before the outbreak of full scale war. The story was shockingly real. Here were the roots of the genocidal fight between Ukrainians and Poles that would engulf the area. The same incident was likely repeated thousands of times over, as soldiers and police traveled through the countryside looking for weapons and suspicious activities. They would often tear up the villager’s corn stalks or take the roofs off dwellings during searches. These actions were made worse due to the fact that most Ukrainians in Volhyn were badly impoverished. Threats, seizures, beatings and imprisonment were used to intimidate them. No matter their age, everyone was worthy of suspicion. There may have not been an official war going on at the time, but make no mistake, this was the true nature of war, with all of its ugly, insidious violence. The Ukrainians would eventually retaliate with deadly ferocity. This was a case of an eye for an eye leaving tens of thousands blind.

War leaves many scars. The ones on the land or buildings eventually disappear. When it comes to people it is not quite that simple. Physical scars on the body may eventually heal, the mental ones never do. I assume that the woman told this story for a very simple reason. It was time. This story was too important not to be passed on to another generation. By telling the story, she made the incident real. This was the experience of war for her and her family. Her sister was not the only one beaten that day, so was she, not physically, but mentally. The moment seared into her memory forever. What else did she see and feel after that day? Were there moments, days, weeks, months, years later when her older sister cried uncontrollably at the thought of what she had suffered? What was it like for the younger sister to see the bloody bruises on her older sisters back? Did the older sister cry herself to sleep at night for months afterwards? Was she permanently traumatized? There is so much more to be known, but the day is fast approaching when it will be too late. The moment when the last of those who still carry these experiences within their living memory will die out is upon us. There is so much that has been left unspoken. If only someone has the courage to ask and the time to listen.

Behind The Numbers – The Human Toll
War in the popular imagination has become little more than a series of grand maneuvers carried out by all knowing generals and politicians. The truth about Ukrainian- Polish conflict in the 1930’s and 40’s can still be discovered in Susk and hundreds of other small villages like it. The deep roots of a conflict such as this are often overlooked, perhaps because they are so frightening. The deeper one digs into the details of human conflict the more personalized and disturbing the stories become. When such phrases as “5,000 were arrested or 600 killed” are recited, they become mere numbers. This information quantifies human experience, but says little about it. Conversely, when a story is personalized it becomes real. It is within the realm of human experience. It could have been our experience, given different circumstances. The story recounted above is just one person’s experience, but there were thousands of similar ones, on both sides. Humanity and inhumanity lurks somewhere behind the numbers. Just ask.

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #3 Myth – The Golden Rose Saves A Synagogue

Like every great nation, every great city has its myths. Lviv is no different. The city is home to an enduring myth, one so powerful that it has actually managed to outlast the destruction of its subject. The myth is based on the Golden Rose Synagogue, a structure that historically was Lviv’s most famous Jewish house of worship. The synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, but the story of how it avoided another mortal threat centuries earlier still survives today. Whether this story is true or not is beside the point. Myths are based on what people want to believe and also on what they need to believe. They shape a narrative of history that often casts their subject in the best light, illuminating virtuous traits and deeply held values. Myths appeal because they play to people’s fantasies. Unlike academic history, they tell really good stories that are easily recalled. All of these traits can be found in Lviv’s Legend of the Golden Rose.

Painting of the Golden Rose Synagogue

Painting of the Golden Rose Synagogue by Odo Dobrowolski in 1912

The Jesuits Versus The Jews – Battling For The Site Of A Synagogue
The Golden Rose synagogue was commissioned by a powerful Jewish financier Izak Nachmanowicz in 1581. The following year an Italian master architect, Paulus Italus, began the design and construction process that took over a decade to complete. The synagogue was built for as a private house of worship for Nachmanowicz and those closest to him. At the time, he was head of Lviv’s Jewish assembly. The synagogue was first named after its founder. This would be one of three names given to it. The second name was Turei Zahav (“The Golden Lines”), which came from a treatise on Judaic religious law by the famous Jewish scholar Rabbi David Ha-Segal, who spent a considerable amount of time in the synagogue praying and thinking during the middle of the 17th century. The most enduring name for the synagogue, the Golden Rose, came last and endured the longest.

The legend behind the Golden Rose begins in 1603. The Jesuits were searching for a site within the city walls of Lviv to build a large stone church. This structure would be much more impressive than the wooden chapel they had previously used.  The problem was that very little land was available within the city walls. The city did not want to give the Jesuits a plot of land because church property was exempt from taxes. Taking a large plot off the tax rolls would damage city finances. The city and the Jesuits were at an impasse. The Jesuits appealed to the Polish King at the time, Sigismund III, to intervene. This was a smart move in their favor since he was also a Jesuit. The king broke the deadlock in the Jesuits favor, deeding them a large plot of land in the Jewish district.

A scene outside the Golden Rose Synagogue as painted by Alfred Kamienobrodzki

The Legend Lives On – A scene outside the Golden Rose Synagogue as painted by Alfred Kamienobrodzki

Rosa For Her People – The Ultimate Sacrifice
Among the buildings already on the site was the Nachmanowicz Synagogue. The importance of this building to the Jewish community would seem to preclude all other claims. This was not to be the case as the Jesuits produced documentation showing that the land had once been owned by a Catholic priest. The Jesuits now had the king on their side as well as a legal argument for their right to ownership. The case was heard in court, with a decision made against the Jews. This was too much for the Jewish community to bear. Their most important sacral structure was about to be taken away from them.  At this point the generally agreed upon facts end, what comes next is more story and less history.

With no legal recourse left to them, Lviv’s Jews thought the synagogue was lost forever. That is when a widowed daughter-in-law of Nachmanowicz by the name of Rosa decided to take action. First she offered up her own considerable wealth to purchase the site. The Jesuit bishop would only consider this deal if Rosa made the offer to him in person. And so she did. The bishop was immediately taken aback by her awe inspiring beauty. He agreed to return the synagogue back to the Jewish community on one condition, that Rosa was to stay with him. In a selfless act to benefit her people she agreed to the bishop’s demand. The Jesuits rescinded their rights to the synagogue. The Jewish community gained possession of the site for good. The unfortunate Rosa was now the bishop’s property, but not for long. During their first night together the relationship was consummated, but in the darkest hours of the night Rosa ingested poison. She died shortly thereafter. Her sacrifice of wealth and life for the spiritual sustenance of her people became the stuff of legend. In the process Rosa gained a fame that has lasted much longer than her life. She was the Golden Rose that the synagogue would be named after.

The Golden Rose Synagogue

More Than A Myth – The Golden Rose Synagogue in 1901

Mythological Proportions – A Golden Rose Grows
Can this story be true? Like all great myths it is ambiguous and contains many kernels of the truth. This is a story that roughly fits the framework of the facts. Rosa was a real person who was related by marriage to Nachmanowicz. The Jesuits were all powerful at the time. They had both the king and legal system on their side. Only a transcendent power could have changed their minds. Rosa’s mysterious beauty and sublime selflessness worked like magic. Myths often blend human and supernatural elements together. These were embodied in the persona of Rosa. She could work wonders or so the listener is led to believe. The facts say otherwise. The real wonder worker was a bribe of 20,600 guilders that was paid by the Jewish community to the Jesuits. It is easy to see why this one fact always gets overlooked. It does not speak of cleverness, guile and mysterious beauty. Instead it says that possession has a price and money decides matters. Would any community want to be seen as giving in to extortion? The Legend of the Golden Rose is just the opposite.  Selflessness and sacrifice was how the Jewish community of Lviv wanted to be seen. Rosa and the Legend of the Golden Rose represent that community, a powerful statement of values that has grown to mythological proportions.

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #2 Fate – Love In Flames: The Execution Of Injustice

In the imagination, Old Lviv was as an ideal city of quaint cobblestone streets, spectacular Renaissance architecture, ornately decorated churches and brightly colored tenement houses, a place of devotion, wealth and tradition. The city walls proscribed the boundaries of a tidy burg infused with charm and grandeur. To be sure there was some of that, but Old Lviv was also a place of inborn prejudices, rigid social hierarchies and segregated living spaces. Where the haves held all the power, while the have nots had very limited freedom. Intolerance was a way of life. The threat of death was constant, either at the hands of invaders – Lviv suffered numerous sieges – or more likely, due to disease.

In comparison to the present day, this was a dangerous world. Life was short and precarious. Then there was the law, which was marked by rigidity, tradition and penal in the extreme. Torture was often used to extract confessions. Verdicts were harsh and the punishment even worse.  For those who failed to obey the status quo, justice could be swift and severe. This was not a world for the sentimental or romantic. Even falling in love could bring the cruelest of consequences. Such a case of fatal romantic bliss occurred in Lviv during this time.

Old Lviv - a place of grandeur and rough justice

Old Lviv – a place of grandeur and rough justice

Of Passion & Prejudice – A Renaissance Regression
There is nothing more endearing than two people who love each other so much that they refuse to be kept apart. A couple so smitten with one another that they cannot control their passion and will sacrifice everything in the pursuit of love. Such romances seem to be a product of destiny, but they can also be ill-fated. This was the situation in late 16th century Lviv when an Armenian widower and a young Polish woman fell hopelessly in love. By today’s standards their romance would not be problematic, but according to the laws of the time they were committing mortal sin. Such a relationship was considered a crime due to their religious affiliations. This would lead to the harshest of punishments.

The love affair occurred at a time when religion was as much a marker of identity as ethnicity. Though both were of the Catholic faith, practitioners of the Armenian and Polish branches of the religion were seen as incompatible. Interfaith romantic relationships or marriages were strictly forbidden. This would threaten the very fabric of society. Division was the organizing basis of Lviv’s Renaissance–era society. Paradoxically, this was what held the society together or so it was believed. Within the city walls of Old Lviv was a completely segregated society based on class, religion, ethnicity and profession. One marker of identity often informed another. For example, ethnic Germans were wealthy burghers, ethnic Poles mainly aristocrats and ethnic Armenians merchants and tradesmen. There were separate quarters for Armenians, Jews, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), while the Poles and Germans dominated Rynok Square. Everyone was supposed to know their rigidly proscribed role. This was a microcosm of central and eastern European societies prior to the Enlightenment.

A Crime Of Love – The Condemnation of Passion
The two lovers, Ivashko and Zofia, were charged with committing a serious criminal offence. There was no denying the couple’s passion. It was obvious that the two were under the spell of love.  What were the judges going to do? They were the guardians of social order. The couple were convicted and sentenced to death by burning. The judges of Lviv decided to make a searing example out of the couple. The ensuing verdict was to be a warning to anyone contemplating such romantic endeavors. Though they had lived and loved inside the city walls, as commoners they could not be executed within them, that dubious honor for the condemned only pertained to aristocrats. The couple would be executed atop a hill outside the city walls, a display of the harshest penal justice for everyone to see. The only solace for the two lovers is that they would be together in their final moments, chained to each other back to back, bound in death, as they were in life by their love.

The fateful day arrived. The condemned were brought to the execution site. A pile of firewood had been prepared for the couple to stand upon. Each of them clutched a torch. When these were lit, the firewood would ignite. The lovers would be helping light the fire that was to consume them. There is no record of any last words between them. Despite their public humiliation and the terrible pain that was about to ensue, the couple may have found solace in each other’s company. Their greatest hope had been to consummate their love in marriage, to be together forever in life. Fate in the form of a terrible justice had intervened. They were bound together in death. The torches were lit. In a matter of moments the two were ablaze and soon dead. There has rarely been a more tragic end to a romantic affair.

Intolerance For The Masses – Life In Old Lviv
Despite the horrific nature of this ill-fated romance there is still much to be learned from the story. The good old days were not very good at all. Life was precarious at best and deadly at worst. The history that still stands today in the city from the Renaissance era is magnificent, but also gives a false impression of life during that time. Most of the city’s inhabitants were commoners doing their best to survive. They did not live in pastel painted, multi-story tenement houses or commission beautiful works of architecture. For the commoner, eking out a hard scrabble existence was the best they might expect. The law was against them. The justice system existed to benefit the few over the many. Keeping such a system in place meant heavy handed laws and brutal punishments. Racism, religious intolerance and economic inequality were rife. Fortunately this system eventually crumbled, but not before an innocent couple suffered an unjust and tragic fate. Today Lviv is known as much as anything for being a city of romance, a place where love affairs blossom. The citizens are free to live and free to love. This is quite the opposite of Old Lviv where there was nothing really romantic about life, especially when it came to love.

 

 

 

 

The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #1 Obsession – Antoni Schneider & The Encyclopedia Of Everything

A good argument could be made that obsession is little more than ambition taken to extremes, ambition to do something way beyond what has ever been done before. Obsessions by their very nature are all consuming. Thus obsessives find their lives for better or worse (usually worse) ruled by a person or goal they have become fixated upon. The obsession rules the person rather than the other way around. In effect they become a slave to their obsession. At some point they usually come to regret their obsession, wishing they could eradicate it from their thoughts and memory. This is impossible until the obsession has run its course. Obsessives are capable of doing great things, achieving the impossible. Conversely, they are more often than not, defeated by the impossible. The problem with obsessives is that they believe less in themselves, than they believe in their obsession. One of the greatest obsessives in the history of Lviv was a man by the name of Antoni Schneider. He imagined a project of such scale that it scarcely seemed possible. That did not stop Schneider from trying to create and eventually be defeated by The Encyclopedia of Expertise On Galicia.

An Exhaustive Encyclopedia of a Make Believe Province
The Austrian administered province known as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria was just short of a hundred years old when Schneider announced his project in 1868. While the land that made up the province had existed since time immemorial, the idea of the Kingdom was created from an old and obscure claim made new. The Austrians took the name from a medieval title held by King Andrew II of Hungary who had conquered the region during the 12th century. Though the Hungarian crown lost the land in rather short order, the title came in handy for the Austrians over 500 years later. They felt the need to show a legitimate historical claim to the region. This was in response to the fact that they had taken the region in the first partition of Poland. To rule the inhabitants, they needed legitimacy. Since Austria also ruled Hungary, they decided to excavate the old Hungarian claim to the kingdom from the dustbin of history. The Austrians spent a considerable amount of time and effort recreating Galicia in their own image. In this way they made history and also made it up.

Antoni Schneider

Antoni Schneider – An excessive man with an obsessive mind

A multi-volume encyclopedia cataloging in exhaustive detail every aspect of the province would further legitimize Galicia. Schneider’s idea was his own, but it was certainly informed by this process. The encyclopedia would be a mammoth undertaking. Schneider was to shoulder nearly all of a superhuman workload. It would provide holistic coverage of the province, with everything from history to statistics to scientific topics receiving in-depth coverage. He professed that the encyclopedia was his way of paying homage to his “fatherland”. This seeming labor of imperial love came from a man who two decades before had been part of open rebellion against the Habsburgs. Oddly enough, Schneider was ethnically half-German and half-Polish, but the encyclopedia was to be a Polish language work. This made sense from both a political and readership stand point. Political, since the province had just gained autonomous status. Poles would heretofore be the ruling and administrative class in Galicia. To gain a wide readership it would be written in Polish, since that was now going to be the lingua franca of the province.

A Most Ambitious Madness
One can only speculate to the degree that manic imagination and frenetic energy played a role in Schneider’s conception of the project. He was largely self-taught. Due to family financial woes he was unable to complete high school. For a time he worked as a clerk for a literary journal, gaining some valuable real world experience in the writing profession. Schneider then became caught up in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution fighting on the side of rebellion. This landed him in jail, but it turned into a fortuitous stroke of luck. He shared a prison cell with a Hungarian historian, Joseph Teleki. Their conversations must have encouraged him to do research and learn more about the past. After he was freed, Schneider toured the countryside around Lviv taking an interest in among other things, castles and ruins. Then in the 1860’s he started publishing articles of stories about places in Galicia. This all led up to the encyclopedia that was to provide a one stop resource for detailed knowledge of almost any subject pertaining to Galicia. The fact that one man conceived and then attempted to carry out this idea speaks volumes about Schneider’s mindset.

Cover to Antoni Schenider's Guide to Lwów - published in 1871

Cover to Antoni Schenider’s Guide to Lwów – published in 1871

Unfortunately even the most enduring obsession has its limits.  Schneider openly stated that the project would take thirty years to complete. That turned out to be a low estimate as the actual production of the first two volumes would show. The volume dealing with letter A took three years to write and was published in 1871. In the same year Schneider also published a Guide to Lwów (Polish name for Lviv). The letter B volume appeared in 1874. At this rate the entire project would take another 72 years to complete. In 1874 Schneider was already 49 years old. Sometime during these years it must have dawned on him that there was no way he would ever complete the encyclopedia. The euphoria he had first experienced with his grandiose dream abated. Subscriptions to the encyclopedia lagged. There was a decided lack of public interest. It turned into an all or nothing enterprise. Sure volumes A and B had been completed, but this was only equivalent to less than ten percent of the entire project. What was the use of doing a volume C? It was just another drop of knowledge in an unfathomable ocean of information.

The Darkest Side Of Obsession
Schneider’s dream descended into darkness. It was a failure made that much worse by obsession. His life had become the encyclopedia, without it he was nothing. He was unable to come close to finishing the project, even though he continued collecting information for every subject of note. His information gathering expanded to the history of the Bukovina province, adjacent to Galicia. All of this work has provided a rich archival source that is still used by researchers today, but what good did that do Schneider at the time? His thoughts of the future would have been aligned with the fact that his life’s work could never be completed. In 1880, he committed suicide by shooting himself. This was the final, mortal blow to a dream that had died long before. Schneider had not been able to finish his work, but it had finished him.

Maximizing The Moment – József Asbóth’s Achievement: The 1947 French Open & Eastern European Tennis Greatness

Growing up, my first introduction to Eastern Europe was through men’s professional tennis. While watching matches I learned that there were nations such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. These were the homelands of Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Wojtek Fibak and Balázs Taróczy. I also learned that there was an Iron Curtain that divided Europe. Behind this curtain was an entirely different world, a controlled environment where faceless officials decided what people could or could not do. The Soviet Union was little more to me than two things, the place where Andrei Chesnokov was from and a system that took most of his prize money. Eastern European tennis players brought the words, defector and dissident into my vocabulary. My idea of communism was not Brezhnev or Gorbachev it was Lendl, though my assumptions about him ended up being totally wrong.

Now I can see the ATP Tour was the beginning of a lifelong interest in Eastern Europe. So many great players have come out of the region, both male and female, that it led me to wonder who the first great Eastern European tennis player was. Long before Lendl or Nastase won Grand Slam titles, there were other trailblazers. The first great Eastern European tennis player – a Hungarian by the name of József Asbóth – is now an obscure enigma, all but lost to tennis history. He came at a time when top class tennis was just getting restarted in the years following World War II. He deserves to be much better known for his achievement as the first Eastern European (and only Hungarian) to win a singles Grand Slam title. The way he won that title is just as amazing as the fact that he did.

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

Courting & Skirting War – The Rise of  József Asbóth
József Asbóth was born during the First World War and had his career interrupted by a second one. The son of a railway worker in the far western Hungarian city of Szombathely, Asbóth came of age in the tumultuous interwar years of a Hungary, riven by the loss of two-thirds of its territory in the post- World War I peace settlement. This was a time when Hungary could no longer call itself part of an empire. Instead it was a medium sized nation surrounded by enemies on multiple sides. One way Hungary could still flex its muscle internationally was in sport. In both the 1928 and 1936 Summer Olympics Hungary finished in the top 10 medal count. Sport was an opportunity for Hungarians to achieve some semblance of greatness. József Asbóth was likely not immune to this desire. At the tender age of 20 Asbóth made his debut in international competition, losing a Davis Cup doubles match to the powerhouse German team. The next year he almost singlehandedly defeated Hungary’s hated archrivals, Romania in Europe Group play. He came from behind in both his singles match, on the road in Bucharest no less, to win each of them in five sets. Later that same year Asbóth won his first Grand Slam match at the French Open. He also made it into the main draw at Wimbledon. In 1940 he won three international tournaments, all in Italy.  Asbóth seemed to have a bright future ahead of him.  Then Hungary became inextricably involved in World War II.

Asbóth’s career was put on hold. He would not play any international tournaments outside of Hungary for five years. Truth be told, he was lucky to survive the war and even luckier that his tennis talent had not deserted him. With the Red Army occupying Hungary, the post-war period was filled with tension and strife. It would only be a few years before the Soviets would shut down all vestiges of democracy in the country. During the interim, Asbóth was allowed the freedom to play abroad. After an eight year absence he reappeared on the Grand Slam stage, making it to the third round at Wimbledon in 1947. A couple of weeks later he was in Paris at the French Open (in 1947 the French open was played after Wimbledon) primed to make a run for the title on his favorite surface, red clay. He was seeded fifth, the result of a title at Nice and semifinal showing at Monte Carlo earlier in the spring. These results were good, but nothing like what was about to happen.

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

From Oblivion To Greatness & Back Again
To say that Asbóth steamrolled through the French Open field in 1947 is an understatement. In six matches he lost only one set and a total of 52 games. In the semifinals he destroyed the #1 seed, American Tom Brown, relinquishing only five games. Asbóth’s run through the tournament was otherworldly. He won two more matches at the French Open that year then he had won in his three previous Grand Slam tournament appearances. He had waited years to play the tournament a second time and then dominated the field. This was unheard of. Asbóth ’s French Open career after his 1947 title turned out to be just as astonishing, but in a very different way. He would not play another match at the tournament until 1954. His title defense was a non-starter, as he was unable to take the court in 1948, losing in a walkover. This was a shame because his performance at Wimbledon that year proved he was still in fine form. He became the first and only Hungarian to make the semifinals on the finely manicured lawns at the All England Club.

From these heights Asbóth ’s play began to fall, as much because of officialdom as any deterioration in his game. To play Wimbledon Asbóth had to have the tennis loving Swedish King Gustaf V guarantee a personal warrant on his behalf. As Hungary succumbed to the Stalinist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi, Asbóth’s international appearances became fewer and fewer. Only after Rakosi was ousted from power did Asbóth start to appear in European tournaments again with regularity. In 1954, he took the court at the French Open for the first time since the 1947 title match. He easily defeated a 17-year old Australian by the name of Roy Emerson. Emerson would go on to win more Grand Slam singles than any player of the amateur era. Asbóth was in his late 30’s when he reappeared at the French. He would stay competitive with the top players until he turned forty. He then helped develop young tennis talent in Belgium. Later he moved to Germany, where he would work as a trainer until he died in 1986.

József Asbóth - the 1947 French Open Champion

József Asbóth – the 1947 French Open Champion

An Invisible Champion & Eastern Europe’s Rise To Tennis Greatness
Asbóth’s twenty years on the tennis circuit was characterized by fits and starts. Interruption by a world war, imposition of Stalinism on his homeland and the failed Revolution of 1956, were all events that coincided with Asbóth’s tennis career. He never had an opportunity to maximize his talent like so many others. His tennis was only able escape his nation’s troubles for a few years. During those moments his game soared. During his career, he won 31 tournaments with one of those being that epic run to the French Open crown in 1947. It set the stage for greater things to come for tennis in Eastern Europe. From Jaroslav Drobney to Jan Kodes through Nastase and Lendl up to Novak Djokovic today, the region has produced some of the greatest tennis champions. And that list of champions starts with the son of a railway worker from Szombathely, Hungary. József Asbóth, the Hungarian who forged a remarkable tennis career and French Open title run against incredible odds.

The Hungarian King Of Holland – Balázs Taróczy: Tennis’ Ultimate Aberration

Some would call it a great accomplishment, while others might say it was an aberration, whatever the case Balázs Taróczy was once the Hungarian King of Holland. Not a king in the monarchical sense of the word, but in a sporting sense. Taróczy was the King of the Dutch Open Tennis Championships (also known as Hilversum) an event he dominated from 1976 through 1983. He won the singles championships six times and the doubles five times. At a glance, Taróczy’s record at the tournament was excellent, but would not seem to be worthy of special notice. The Dutch Open was always a mid-level tournament ignored by top ten players. It was not as though Taróczy was giant slaying Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas or Ivan Lendl during his halcyon years at Hilversum. He was taking down lighter weights, along with a few top twenty players along the way.

Taróczy’s feat at Hilversum is astonishing because he was able to dominate at the tournament for years. He won six of his thirteen singles titles during his career there. Only the very best players have managed to win the same tournament that many times. Taróczy forte was not singles. He was a much more accomplished doubles player, one of the best in the world for years. In tandem with his Swiss partner Heinz Gunthardt, he won Grand Slam titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. Those titles put his name in the history books forever, after all Grand Slam tournaments are the crème de la crème of men’s professional tennis. Nevertheless, his Dutch Open record merits a closer look. There has never been anything like Taróczy success at Hilversum – or a similar type of tournament – from a good, but not great tennis player.

Balázs Taróczy

Balázs Taróczy – in action on his favorite surface of red clay

The Few & The Forgotten – Magyar Kings of the Court
Hungarian male tennis stars are few and forgotten. The Magyars have only produced one Grand Slam singles tournament winner, József Asbóth, who took the French Open title in 1947. Asbóth the son of railway workers, eventually migrated to the west in order to escape the Iron Curtain. The only commemorations of Asbóth that exist today are a street named after him in the western Hungarian city of Szombathely, where he was born. There is also a plaque in his honor that can be found in Budapest’s 11th district. His name will never be mentioned in the same breath as say Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, though he has as many French Open singles titles as the two combined. The best name for a Hungarian professional tennis player has to be Attila Savolt. The name sounds fierce and aggressive. It is a pity that Savolt’s tennis was less than stellar. He topped out with a world ranking of 68 in 2002. His winning percentage on the main tour was a woeful 39%, but at least his name was memorable.

Taróczy is by far the greatest Hungarian tennis player of the modern era (since 1968). He won 39 titles, two-thirds of which were in doubles. His favorite surface was the red clay he had grown up on. It is not surprising that he won all of his singles titles on dirt. Of course his affinity for red clay was one of the main reasons he did so well at the Dutch Open. What were the other reasons? No one really has answer. In a February 2010 blog post for Tennis Magazine, journalist Peter Bodo – an ethnic Hungarian born in Austria – gave his thoughts, “Taróczy is a long-time friend of mine; some of you may remember him as the prematurely balding Hungarian stylist with the sweeping, sweet, one-handed slice backhand and heavy serve…he collected almost half of those (singles titles) at one tournament – Hilversum, where he won at six times. What was the secret? Got me. Got him, too. He just liked it there, and after he won the title he was always welcomed back like a conquering hero.”

Balázs Taróczy at Hilversum in 1981

The Hungarian King Of Holland – Balázs Taróczy at Hilversum in 1981 (Credit: Rob Bogaerts/Anefo)

A Conquest Of Consistency – Catching Fire
Taróczy was definitely the king of Hilversum, the likes of which was never seen before or after his years at the tournament. Strange as it may seem, Taroczy’s multiple conquests at Hilversum had a less than agreeable start. In 1976, during his first match, he lost the first set to Martin Robinson, a Brit who never cracked the top 100. He then caught fire, relinquishing only two games over the final two sets. He did not lose another set until the final, when he came back from a two set deficit to win the championship. The next year he lost in the first round to the 174th ranked John Marks by the wild score of 0-6, 6-4, 9-7. He would not lose again until six years later.

Taróczy not only won the next four singles titles in succession, but the doubles titles in each of those years as well. In the first of those years, 1978, he destroyed Corrado Barazzuti, the number 9 ranked player in the world at the time, allowing the Italian a mere five games over three sets in the semifinals. In the final he defeated the greatest Dutch player of all time, Tom Okker. In 1979 he lost five sets, but still managed to win the tournament. In 1980 he lost no sets and only 27 games in five matches. In 1981 he defeated lifelong doubles partner Gunthardt in the final, coming from a set down to win his 20th match in a row at Hilversum. In 1982 he won his 5th title in a row there. It was an incredible run. Finally in 1983 Taróczy was defeated, but not before he made it all the way to the final. He carried a 29 match win streak into the final against Tomas Smid. The Czechoslovak was too strong, as he took Taróczy down in straight sets. The 1983 final would be the last singles match Taróczy would play at Hilversum.

Balázs Taróczy - always close to the clay

Balázs Taróczy – always close to the clay

Among the Greats – Taróczy’s Achievement In Retrospect
Balázs Taróczy finished his career at the Dutch Open with the astounding record of 34 – 2 (94.4%). The trophy could have retired to its rightful place, in the clutches of Taróczy’s hands where it was held aloft for so many successive summers. Possible explanations for his uncanny success at the tournament include comfort, confidence, streakiness and surface. He was certainly in his element on those balmy July days at Hilversum. It was a case of a sportsman rising to the occasion year after year after year after year after year after year, one long run-on title. His feat has rarely been surpassed. The list of tennis players who have won the same event at least six times are, Rafael Nadal, Guillermo Vilas, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic and Balazs Taróczy. Taróczy’s incredible record at the Dutch Open places him among the greats and ranks as one of the most improbable tennis achievements ever.

Standing At The Edge Of The Grave – Debrecen’s Railway Station: The Life & Death of Kadarchitecture

I have visited Debrecen, the largest city in eastern Hungary, so many times now that I have lost count. Whether arriving or departing I have managed to spend an inordinate amount of time at the train station. This is something I have come to dread. The station is a notorious concrete and brick pile, the type of building that has led me to coin the term Kadarchitecture. This denotes a utilitarian structure that lacks any type of redeeming aesthetic sensibility, architecture that is all body and no soul. I blended Kadararchitecture’s name from the relatively benign Hungarian communist leader Janos Kadar, who ruled the country from 1956 to 1988. His rule was famous for Goulash Communism, a policy that loosened state strictures so that Hungary was a much more economically and culturally open society than other communist bloc nations during that era. Such progressiveness did little for the country’s public architecture. Case in point is the Debrecen Railway Station (Debrecen Nagyállomás), completed in 1961 without frills or any type of memorable aesthetics. It was meant to be functional and that was about it.

The current Debrecen Railway station

Kadarchitecture – Current Debrecen Railway station

Bringing It All Back Home – Bombs Away
The station was created solely for the purpose of people getting on or off trains and purchasing tickets. Everything else seems to have been a bad afterthought. There are a couple of forgettable newsstands along with a ghastly selection of food vendors whose main culinary achievement is the overuse of heat lamps. A range of seedy characters and bleary eyed hangers-on inhabit the station’s main waiting hall. Above the hall can be seen communist era murals that display the common folk working in harmony. The style is sadly creative.  It creates the impression that Pablo Picasso and Leonid Brezhnev were working together. Imagine a rudimentary and rigid cubism, with a flair for the mediocre. The station’s interior is not excessively dirty, but neither is it very clean. The underground walkway to and from the platforms has a sinister feel, the kind of place that looks as though it could be a breeding ground for stalkers and perverts. Yet it is not violent or dangerous, just depressing. It is within the station’s concrete corridors that minutes can be measured in hours.  For a long time I wondered why Debrecen was plagued with such a dreadful train station. A bit of research brought the shocking realization that part of the reason had to do with my own country.

Debrecen Railway Station after the June 2. 1944 aerial bombardment

Approaching ruin – the Debrecen Railway Station after the June 2. 1944 aerial bombardment

Debrecen is a long way from Italy, but during World War II it was not far enough. On June 2, 1944 a fleet of American 130 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers escorted by 70 P-51 fighters took off from southern Italy in a bombing run as part of what was known as Operation Frantic. The bombers were only able to carry out their mission because they were allowed to land at airfields in eastern Ukraine. In their bomb sites were the railroad yards of Debrecen. The city was now on the front lines of Nazi occupied Eastern Europe. The goal was to destroy the German Army’s ability to supply its troops and forces fighting the Red Army which was on the verge of pushing into the Great Hungarian Plain. The bombers were right on target, causing massive damage to the city’s transport infrastructure. Like all bombing runs of that time, there was plenty of collateral damage. Five thousand of the city’s citizens lost their lives. Innumerable homes were damaged or destroyed. By the mid-October 1944, due to the aerial bombing and a massive tank battle fought on the fringes of Debrecen, half of the city’s homes had been reduced to rubble. The ramifications of what happened that day are still apparent in Debrecen’s current architecture, specifically its train station. The station is an eyesore, especially when compared to its beautiful predecessor which was irreparably damaged by the aerial bombardment.

Ferenc Pfaff designed Debrecen Railway Statio

The Ferenc Pfaff designed Debrecen Railway Station – 1894 to June 2, 1944

Debrecen’s Palace Of Transport – Pfaff’s Imagination
In my library at home, I have an oversized, hardcover book called Debrecen: Converging the Lines. It gives an excellent overview of the city’s history and contains entries on the most memorable sites worth visiting. Nowhere among the 106 pages of words and color photos is a mention of the current railway station. That is understandable for such a monstrosity, but what truly baffles is the fact that the historic railway station is referenced only once. Perhaps the pain of its loss is too much. For exactly fifty years, from 1894 up until June 2, 1944, that palace of transport was the point of arrival and departure for hundreds of thousands of passengers. It was built during the belle époque of Hungarian architecture, as the nation experienced a building boom reflective of the economic and transport modernization that was taking place at the time. The architect was Ferenc Pfaff, who had studied under the great Imre Steindl, the man who designed the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Miskolc Tiszai Railway Station

Miskolc Tiszai Railway Station

In 1887 Pfaff became director of building works for the Hungarian State Railways. From that time forward, he designed thirty-eight railway stations across the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the prime examples of his work can still be found today in the northeastern Hungary, the Miskolc Tiszai Railway Station. The structure has a similar appearance to the one that was destroyed in Debrecen. This one was also bombed on June 2, 1944, but managed to survive.  Like the existing station in Miskolc, the one that was lost in Debrecen was done up in the style of neo-renaissance eclecticism.  There was a festive air about the structure, the kind of building that made travel to or from the city an event worthy of reverence. This was the era when travel by train was still relatively new. There was an abiding fascination with steam locomotion along steel rails, as barriers of time and distance were defeated. Debrecen was now within minutes of its hinterland and hours of the booming capital. It made the city one of the most important in greater Hungary, as such it demanded a train station worthy of its significance, for 50 years it had one. Then American bombs came screaming down from the heavens, changing the city’s landscape forever. Pfaff’s creation went up in smoke and flame as it was reduced to a smoldering ruin.

Debrecen Railway Station shortly after opening in the early 1960s

As good as it would get – Debrecen Railway Station shortly after opening in the early 1960s

Closing The Casket – A War From Within
Born from the ruins of Debrecen’s Second World War was the station that still stands today, but not for much longer. There are plans to construct a new station over the next several years. It is due to be completed by 2018. Such terms as functionalism, integrated transport and efficiency are being used to describe it. Certainly it will be an upgrade, but from the mock-ups that have been presented, it does not come close to the stylistic elegance of Pfaff’s station. His achievement will never be replicated in Debrecen. Such aesthetic losses are one of those indirect costs of World War II that can never be quantified. Each time that I arrive or depart at Debrecen’s current railway station I am reminded of what has been lost. I am also reminded of my country’s part in that destruction, in the name of a just cause. Such are the chance calamities of war. Standing on the edge of a grave is never easy. Looking at the body before the casket is closed can be even harder.

Model of the new Debrecen Railway Station to be completed in 2018

What dreams may come – a model of the new Debrecen Railway Station to be completed in 2018