The Burning of the World – Bela Zombray-Moldavan at Horyniec Palace

It really must have been something to see back then, before the war. We now have it on good authority that it was quite a sight even while the war was raging a few kilometers from its walls. Today it is still something to see, even if it is just a shadow of its former self. The sight was the Horyniec Palace in what is today Horyniec-Podroj, Poland. Presently it is located in the extreme southeastern corner of Poland, less than five kilometers from the border with Ukraine. A hundred years and a handful of months ago the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. As late as the beginning of World War I this region was still a bastion of the Polish land holding aristocracy, this despite the fact that Poland had disappeared from the map of Europe more than a century earlier. The aristocrat’s wealth was in the land. They had magnificent palaces built to display their riches and power.

In 1914, those who owned the Horyniec Palace could not have known that their glittering lifestyle was about to be radically transformed. When war came to the palace’s doorsteps, hallways and bed chambers its owners had long since fled. They were not present at the final moments when the material wealth contained within the palace was on the verge of vanishing forever. The war really changed everything and in Horyniec-Podroj it occurred almost overnight. Now almost exactly one hundred years later we have the words of an eyewitness who by accident received one of the last looks at this opulence and also got a first, fleeting glance at its destruction. It was an ominous sign of what was to be repeated all across Eastern Europe in the years and decades to come.

What was once Horyniec Palace in southeastern Poland - a hundred years after the Great War

What was once Horyniec Palace in southeastern Poland – a hundred years after the Great War

Modern War At Its Most Devastating – Bela Zombory-Moldavan’s Experience at the Front
Bela Zombory-Moldavan was a Hungarian artist and something of a modern renaissance man. First and foremost, Zombory-Moldavan was a professional painter, good enough to earn a living from his art. He was a soldier during World War I as well, seeing action on the Eastern Front during the early days of the conflict in the Galician theater, specifically at a clash known as the Battle of Rava Ruska, where Austro-Hungarian forces were routed by the Russian army. It was this battle and his time in the Hungarian Army which has now brought to light Zombory-Moldavan’s other great skill, as an author. He wrote a manuscript that was passed down through family circles until it came into the possession of his grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldovan in 2012. This year, on the centenary of the Great War, the manuscript was published as a book titled The Burning of the World. It is one of only a few English language accounts of the war on the Eastern Front by a soldier who was involved in combat at the field level. Zombory-Moldavan describes the fear, violence and chaos he personally experienced before being wounded. It is modern war at its most devastating.

The Burning of the World by Bela Zombory-Moldavan- a century in the making

The Burning of the World by Bela Zombory-Moldavan- a century in the making

Zombory-Moldavan only catches vague glimpses of the Russian opposition. He hardly has time to fire his rifle, let alone aim it as the platoon he leads comes under withering artillery fire. There is no gripping account of heroic charges in the face of gunfire, there is no opportunity to turn the tide of battle, instead there is a mad scramble to take cover and survive. First, Zombory-Moldovan succumbs to shell shock than a little later he is wounded during another burst of shelling. He describes being wounded “as though the earth has collided with another planet, and I am caught between the two. There is a silence so deep that I think I have gone deaf.” An interlude occurs where the traumatized Zombory-Moldavan is brought to the Horyniec Palace where he attempts to convalesce for a few hours before he and his fellow soldiers flee the advancing Russian forces.

Bela Zombory-Moldavan - Self-Portrait from 1915

Bela Zombory-Moldavan – Self-Portrait from 1915

Looking Backward Into the Future – Horyniec Palace on the The Eve of Destruction|
The artistic instinct in him takes over as he notices the palace’s spectacular interior. It makes a striking contrast to his condition and the destructiveness of warfare which is only moments away from arriving at the palace. Unwittingly, Zombory-Moldavan becomes a final witness to the material wealth and belongings of Eastern Europe’s aristocracy which are soon to vanish. Being an artist, Zombory-Moldavan has an eye for stylistic detail which infuses his writing. He is carried up “the steps of a fabulously beautiful staircase and into a magnificent chamber…(laid) on the silk covers of a bed guarded by gilded griffins – muddy, filthy, and bloody as I am.” Not long after he is aroused from sleep by an assistant who says “Sir! Sir! I’ll help you get up. We have to evacuate the castle. The Russians are coming.” How many thousands of times would these same words be uttered all across Eastern Europe over the next three decades.

Despite his dire state, Zombory-Moldavan seems to be aware of the bizarre paradox of his condition contrasted with the lavishness of the interior. While making his way out of the palace he, “can’t resist the temptation to gaze around the two-story staircase and the upper gallery with its ancestral portraits, spanning centuries, in Baroque gilt frames…Downstairs there is a wonderful marble fireplace, tapestries on the walls, and paintings: huge Dutch still lifes with hare and pheasants. I may be the last person to see all this, if war lays waste to it.” A bit later, at a distance he sees smoke rising over the palace. Zombory-Moldavan is looking back at what will be the future. Though badly scarred, he would make his way safely out of the war zone and never see combat again. He would survive for many, many years and live on into the 1950’s.

Sanatorium Uzdrowiskowe Bajka - formerly Horyniec Palace

Sanatorium Uzdrowiskowe Bajka – formerly Horyniec Palace

Convalescence From War & From Life – Horyniec Palace As Sanatarium
The Horyniec Palace also survived, but in a very different form. Of course it was looted during the war, but the structure remained intact, it is still there today. Ironically, it is a place still used for convalescence, not from war, but from life. The palace is now a sanatarium. The building’s exterior still conveys some of the magnificence of its former self. Yet the interior is no longer home to lavish furnishings or gilded material belongings. That old Europe is gone, swept away by the war. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like, but at least we now have the testimony of Bela Zombory-Moldavan. An artist’s eye and an author’s words rendering one last look at all that would be lost…forever.

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