About fortchoteau1

I first learned about Eastern Europe and the various nations in the region by watching the Olympics. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo was a formative experience in my life. I hold a B.S. in Political Science and a minor in History with an emphasis on International Affairs. My professional career reconnected me with Eastern Europe when I spent six years guiding tours and developing exhibits at a decommissioned Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile site that had been designated a National Park. From that point I began to read more widely about Eastern Europe and starting traveling throughout the region. I have now made thirteen trips to Eastern Europe. Much of this blog is the result of those travels. In my professional career, I currently serve as the Director of a large museum in the Rocky Mountain West.

Greater Than The Gods – A Palatial Reminder: The Vanity Of Albrecht von Wallenstein

I was standing on the eastern edge of Prague Castle looking down at the heart of the Czech capital. I could easily spot the Charles, Legion and Manes Bridges, the Vltava River slowly surged forward with the historic architecture of Prague’s Stare Mesto (Old Town) visible just to the west of it. Below me was the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) with its red roofs and beautiful Baroque architecture. One area of it that I could not help but notice was the Wallenstein Palace. Today it houses the Czech Republic’s Senate, but the palace is most famous for its namesake, Albrecht von Wallenstein. The sight of the palace and its adjacent grounds gave me pause, I felt a strange, menacing fascination. That name Wallenstein meant much more than a palace, it meant power and betrayal, war without end and ultimately murder.

Wallenstein was one of the most famous warlords in what was Europe’s most infamous conflict prior to the 20th century. He brought himself fame and fortune during the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict which caused untold suffering and ravaged Central Europe for much of the first half of the 17th century. He rose to become the supreme commander of the Habsburg Monarchy’s forces before he fell from favor and was assassinated. It was almost impossible for me to separate the man from his fate. Wallenstein’s murder was chilling, but not surprising. More than anything, Wallenstein was dedicated to war and that dedication brought him to a very bloody end on a deadly winter night.

Wallenstein Palace - in Prague's Mala Strana District

Wallenstein Palace – in Prague’s Mala Strana District (Credit: packare)

A Conversion To Power – Faith In Opportunism
Ambitious, opportunistic and rapacious are all words that aptly describe Albrecht von Wallenstein. His pursuit of power knew no bounds and would eventually lead to his downfall, but it also led him to surmount the circumstances of the world into which he was born. Wallenstein came from a family of poor Bohemian nobility. “Poor” is a relative word though. The Wallenstein family owned a castle and seven villages, but by the standards of Bohemian nobility they were impoverished. Albrecht acquired an excellent education, first at Protestant schools and universities – he was raised Lutheran – then later under the tutelage of Jesuits. Some believe this Jesuit instruction was the main reason for his conversion to Catholicism. This decision would ultimately pay off, as Wallenstein had effectively aligned himself with the Habsburg Monarchy during the Counter-Reformation. Only Catholics could be appointed to positions of power in the monarchy. Whether Wallenstein went through a legitimate conversion is open to question. The conversion was just as likely opportunism.

Judging by his future career, the ends always justified the means. The same went for marriage, as Wallenstein attained much of his initial wealth and power from what would be termed today as marrying into money. In his case, he married into land and lots of it. His first marriage to a widow only lasted five years, but that was because she died and left him with vast landholdings. A decade later, he married the daughter of a count. Her family lands came into his possession as well. After the two marriages, Wallenstein was one of the wealthiest landowners in Bohemia, but that was not enough for him. The more he took, the more he wanted.

Albrecht von Wallenstein

Albrecht von Wallenstein (Credit: Anthony Van Dyck)

A Lust For Power – From Egomania To Megalomania
It was not just wealth, but also power which Wallenstein coveted. His wealth was a means to this end. He financed and outfitted an entire regiment to fight in the Thirty Years’ War on behalf of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II. Such was his military prowess that he quickly advanced to the upper echelons of the Emperor’s armed forces. He led troops in a stunning series of triumphs which included victory over Protestant forces at the Battle of White Mountain. After this victory, Wallenstein confiscated landholdings of Protestant nobles in Bohemia. Warfare was paying off handsomely, bringing him power, prestige and incredible riches. His military acumen extended well beyond the battlefield. He developed a system of “war taxes” whereby allies of the Emperor had to help fund the military. Prior to this, armies lived only off the plunder they gained from their martial exploits, now both ally and enemy would fund military expeditions. This system allowed Wallenstein to raise massive numbers of troops for a series of seemingly endless campaigns.

Amid his many glorious victories, Wallenstein failed to see that he was bleeding the population on his own side to death. Civilians became increasingly resentful of his methods. Wallenstein’s troops were notorious for being particularly brutal in their treatment of local populations. At the same time, his growing power was becoming a threat to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. The emperor was right to fear Wallenstein. Here was a man whose lust for power and wealth seemed to never be satisfied. Case in point, Wallenstein Palace, where no expense was spared in its construction and furnishing the interior.  Wallenstein built it to compete with Prague Castle, which towered just above it. As such, the palace’s Main Hall rivaled the Spanish Hall at the castle in size and splendor. One specific fresco in the Main Hall is particularly expressive of Wallenstein’s megalomania. In the middle ceiling, the fresco portrays Wallenstein as Mars, the God of War. In the past, Mars had been depicted driving a war chariot with three horses. In the ceiling fresco, he is driving four horses. Egomaniacal and vain, Wallenstein now thought of himself as greater than the gods.

Fresco depicting Wallenstein as Mars, the God of war - Riding in a chariot pulled by four horses

Fresco depicting Wallenstein as Mars, the God of war – Riding in a chariot pulled by four horses (Credit: Wikipedia)

Blind Ambition – Unretired
Wallenstein’s vanity was not limited to his grandest palace. He also collected titles and offices the way he collected wealth. At one time or another he was Duke of Friedland, Duke of Mecklenburg, Lord of Jicin, Holy Roman Emperor Count Palatine, Generallismo and my personal favorite, Admiral of the North and Baltic Seas. His ego demanded a multitude of honorifics, his greed vast amounts of treasure and his ambition unlimited power.  Ferdinand II began to fear that Wallenstein might eventually overthrow him, the princes in other areas of the empire both resented and feared Wallenstein. His army’s plunder and cruelty alienated both Catholics and Protestants. In 1630 Ferdinand relieved him of command. Wallenstein went into what turned out to be a rather short retirement of only two years. After the Emperor’s armies were dealt several resounding defeats by the brilliant generalship of the Swedish warlord, Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein was brought back as commander of the Habsburg forces. Little did he know, that the final part of his career and life were about to begin.

Coming soon: The Course Of A Falling Star – Albrecht von Wallenstein: Astrology & Assassination

 

The Dancing House In Prague – Searching For Stability: Fred & Ginger By The Vltava

Modern architecture is like modern art for me: sterile, lacking in charm and for the most part, incomprehensible. When functionality is the best thing you can say about a modern building, well then there is not much left to say. At least modern architecture in the United States can be explained away by the fact that America is a place constantly reinventing itself, with a history that is relatively new. The opposite is true for Europe, it is called the Old World for a reason and to my mind the buildings should reflect that. The modern architecture I am most familiar with in Europe was the Socialist realist style inspired by the Soviet Union. It has all the rigidity and unimaginativeness of a Stalinist Five Year Plan. Function dictates style.

Fortunately for Eastern Europe, communism did not destroy most of the old architecture in this region. It was needed for everything, from alleviating housing shortages to administrative facilities. It may be distasteful to think of gorgeous churches turned into museums of atheism for forty years, but at least they were not destroyed. What did destroy much of Eastern Europe’s older architecture (I am using this term loosely, denoting anything prior to World War One) was the Second World War. Some older areas were almost totally rebuilt, such as Warsaw’s Old Town. While Minsk was reconstructed in Soviet style. One place that survived the war relatively unscathed was Prague. An overriding majority of its historic core remained intact. That does not mean it did not suffer some damage, most notably in 1945, when American bombers struck the city. This would eventually mean opportunities for reconstruction. This is how the Czech capital became home to one of the most bizarre buildings in modern times, Frank Gehry’s Dancing House.

Fred and Ginger - Dancing House at dusk

Fred and Ginger – Dancing House at dusk (Credit: Dino Quinzani)

Stepping Out & Stepping Up – Dynamism’s Duo
Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers may have finished their last dance decades ago, but they can still be found immortalized on Jiraskovo Place (Jiraskovo namesti) in Prague. A different Fred and Ginger now spend their days and nights locked together, not far from the banks of the Vltava River. The difference between Fred and GInger on the dance floor and the two together in Prague is stark. While the former was an incredibly dynamic duo who wowed the world with their dance steps, the latter is an eclectic modern architectural wonder designed by another tandem, architects Frank Gehry and the Czech Republic’s own Vlado Milunic. Their creation was given the name Fred and Ginger by Gehry, but it is more popularly known as The Dancing House. I understood why after viewing it from just across the street at the Alois Jirasek Memorial (Pomnik Aloise Jirasek) that contains the statue of the famous Czech poet and playwright Alois Jirasek.

It was another Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was partly responsible for a new Fred and Ginger tripping the light fantastic in Prague. Havel grew up beside the area where the Dancing House now stands. During much of his lifetime, the site held the shell of a building that American bombers struck during the last phase of the Second World War. During the Cold War, Havel – who was a dissident famous for his unyielding opposition to Czechoslovakia’s communist regime – lived beside the abandoned site. Sometime during the mid-1980’s, before the Iron Curtain fell, Havel and Milunic who were neighbors, spent time discussing what could be done about the ruined property. They both shared an idea that it might eventually host a cultural center.

Something to look over - windows at the Dancing House

Something to look over – windows at the Dancing House (Credit: Mounirzok)

A Whimsical Appendage – Architecture As Ideology
After the Cold War ended Havel rose to the presidency of first Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. This put him in a position where he could help move the project forward. Meanwhile, Milunic had teamed up with the soon to be world famous architect, in what would be one of Gehry’s most fantastical architectural concoctions. The result was a building unlike anything that had ever been seen, not only in Prague, but also in the world. The fact that the Dancing House is part of a block replete with 19th century buildings makes it easily noticeable. Perhaps that is also because it stands on the corner of a block. Looking like a whimsical appendage, one part of it is a glass tower which leans into the other part. As though the two were engaged in a dynamic waltz. This glass tower with its curved pillars narrows at the center.  While on the Vltava side, the building’s second part consists of undulated mouldings that produce a flowing effect. This part also contains unaligned windows encased in protruding frames, adding a three-dimensional effect. The structure is crowned by Medusa, a domed, twisted contraption of metal.

From whichever angle I chose, viewing the Dancing House was disorienting. It is meant to be more than just a building, it is an architectural statement, symbolic of Prague in transition. The stagnation and rigidity of communism, gives way to dynamism, fluidity and individuality, a transformative ideology. Havel’s dream of a cultural center never took flight. Ironically, capitalism put paid to that idea. Perhaps that should have been expected since the developer of the building was a Dutch insurance firm, Nationale-Nederlanden, which became ING Bank in 1991. The Dancing House may have been a statement, but it also needed to make money. A host of multinational firms have offices in the structure and there is even a French restaurant occupying the top floor. Such tenants are a sign of globalism grasping post-Cold War Prague.

The Dancing House - in black & white

Shall We Dance – Fred & Ginger in black and white (Credit: BRENAC)

The Glass Tower – Leaning Into An Uncertain Future
I must confess that the Dancing House was not to my liking. It was hard for me to see the point, other than to advertise Prague as a progressive, contemporary city at the heart of a New Europe. The building would have looked more at home in New York, Hing Kong or Dubai, those global centers of the contemporary. I did not feel that the Dancing House was unpleasant architecture, just that it was out of place in the New Town (Nove Mesto) of Prague. It did not fit with the rest of the surrounding area, but from what I understand that was a deliberate choice. The Dancing House’s glass tower may have symbolized Ginger leaning into Fred, but to me it represented Prague leaning into an uncertain future, while searching for something to stabilize itself against.

 

The Most Powerful Name In Tennis – Attila Savolt: A Legend In My Own Mind

His name was memorable, his tennis results less so. Attila Savolt, a man with a name for the ages was one of Hungary’s all-time best tennis players. Long after his tennis exploits were forgotten, the name stayed in the memory. In my opinion, there has never been a name like it in the annals of men’s professional tennis. His first name conjured up images of a fierce warrior. Attila is both a name and a word with incredible historical connotations. Add “the Hun” behind it and images of barbarians on the rampage come to mind. Rather than across Roman borders, Attila Savolt’s rampage was up through the men’s professional tennis ranks. There was also his surname which pulsated with electricity. It evoked a charged atmosphere anytime it was spoken. Both names taken together sound edgy, energetic and full of fight. The name is his most memorable attribute, but Attila Savolt’s tennis exploits both on and off the court are what brought him to the attention of Eastern European tennis fanatics such as myself. Just saying his name aloud made me feel powerful, I could only imagine how his opponents felt.

Attila Savolt - More than just a name

Attila Savolt – More than just a name

Career Development – The Rise Of Attila The Hungarian
A person can find almost anything on the internet. This is especially true when it comes to sports, but one thing they will not find is a Wikipedia page devoted to Attila Savolt in Magyar (the Hungarian Language). There are pages for Savolt in English, German, Slovak, Polish and even a couple in Arabic. The oversight may have something to do with the fact that Hungarians are not particularly strong tennis enthusiasts. The lack of information given on Savolt’s background has left me wondering about the details of how he was able to develop his game in Hungary. Unlike child prodigy’s whose parents got started them on the game while they were toddlers, Savolt started playing at the tender age of seven in his hometown of Budapest. His opponent back then was his brother.

Savolt grew up idolizing the Swedish serve and volley maestro Stefan Edberg. Unlike Edberg, Savolt’s favorite surface was red clay since his greatest strength was strong baseline play. The lack of information on Savolt’s professional development is somewhat mitigated by the plethora of match results from the time he began playing tour level events in 1995. It is little wonder that Savolt’s tennis career is overlooked since his greatest results occurred almost entirely in second tier challenger events (one below the top tour level) that only true diehard tennis fans follow. Nonetheless, Savolt’s tennis career is impressive, if for no other reason than he rose to the top from a nation where tennis was an afterthought and developmental infrastructure for promising junior players was minimal.

Lucky Loser – A Career On The Margins
In 1996, just his second year on tour, Savolt broke through when he won his first challenger event in improbable fashion, doing it as a “lucky loser”. This oxymoronic term encapsulates the high and lows of a tennis journeyman’s career. A lucky loser is a player who loses in the final round of qualifying then gets into the main draw of an event after another player withdraws. Savolt made the most of this quirk at a tournament on red clay in Tampere, Finland. Ranked #289 at the time, he proceeded to win three of his five matches in deciding third sets, including the semis and final. Later that year he made it to the final of his hometown challenger in Budapest. Savolt was not through in Tampere either. In 1997 he repeated his championship run from the year before. This time as a main draw entrant. He rampaged through the draw without the loss of a set.

Challengers were Savolt’s forte. He won six singles titles at that level, all on red clay. He garnered the same amount of challenger titles in doubles during his decade long pro career. Each of these victories took place between 1996 – 2001. In line with the careers of many a journeyman tour pro, Savolt struggled at top tour level events, only going 37-58. There were a few highlights despite his overall match record. These included wins over the Czech Jiri Novak when he was ranked 14th in the world. His greatest upset occurred in the next to last year of his career when Savolt defeated #12 Tim Henman in Dubai. The latter victory took place on one of Savolt’s worst surfaces, hard courts. He also managed to make the third round at the French Open twice. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and poor play combined to send Savolt’s career into a downward spiral. In 2004 he played his last professional match at an event far away from his homeland, losing in Bangkok to complete a season where he won only one out of twelve matches. Savolt’s playing days were over, a new career in coaching would slowly begin to take shape.

Coach & mentor - The next phase of Attila Savolt career

Coach & mentor – The next phase of Attila Savolt career

The Rise From Obscurity – Marton’s Mentor
After he retired from the tour, Attila Savolt was a name that my best friend – a fellow tennis fanatic – and myself would often recite as code for obscure men’s pro tennis tour knowledge. The name for us was redolent of obscure events, in out of the way paradises. that we could only dream of ever visiting. Any man whose workplace moved on a weekly basis to such exotic locales as Lugano, Umag, Cagliari and St. Poelten, to name just a few, we held in awe. For a couple of nine to fivers who were toiling away in the backwaters of the American workforce Attila Savolt was more than just a man, he was a legend. A man can always dream of a different, more wonderful life and Attila Savolt represented a dream that grew fainter as the years passed without any mention of him in the tennis media.

Then the rise of Marton Fucsovics changed everything. Another obscure Hungarian tennis hero was on the cusp of making his name known. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Fucsovics’ coach was none other than Savolt. One tennis journeyman – they have often been some of the best coaches – passing on sage advice to another. Fucsovics spent many years toiling away on the challenger tour just as his coach did. In 2016 Savolt took over as his coach and an ascent inside the top 100 followed. The hope is that Savolt can help Fucsovics achieve a level of greatness that he himself never quite attained. Fucsovics’ may end up surpassing Savolt in tennis accomplishments, but he will never surpass him in name recognition. Attila Savolt is a name to be reckoned with and one that I will always remember.

Attila Savolt, Attila Savolt Marton Fucsovics Coach, Marton Fucsovics Coach, Hungary Men’s professional Tennis, Hungary Tennis, Eastern Europe Tennis

For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night – Prague Castle: St. Vitus Cathedral & The Golden Lane

Guinness Book of World Records – that venerable volume cataloging the fabulous feats and eccentricities of people who have done something extraordinary, life threatening or pathologically absurd – quite often all three at the same time – tells us that the world’s largest castle created by man stands on 81 acres above the Vltava River in Prague. This is the famed Prague Castle. Upon visiting I was surprised to discover it was not so much a castle, as it was a very large complex of magnificent structures that any major city would be proud to call their own. The castle or Hrad as Czechs call it, provides Prague with such a surfeit of man-made beauty, architectural glitterati and royal refinement that it was hard for me to figure out just where to start. More daunting is the realization that one could spend a lifetime visiting the Castle’s treasures, learning the history of its streets and buildings without ever getting anywhere close to an endpoint. After touring it on a cold, blustery day in mid-March I could not dispute the castle’s world record status for size or breadth. I found the depth of history and culture on offer withering.

For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night - Golden Lane

For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night – Golden Lane

Seeing It Through – A Cathedral Fit For A Castle
I barely scratched the surface, spending very little time inside any of the buildings while roaming the streets in sheer wonderment for many hours. After a bit of exploration, I realized that Prague Castle was a misnomer. Trying to think of it in the conventional sense of a singular, standalone castle was impossible. It must be considered in its entirety. Prague Castle is more like something that sprouted from a Hans Christian Anderson tale, filled with fantastical buildings. It contains a series of stunning architectural features from differing eras that taken together is a compelling record of how to create the very essence of royalty. Because there are so many buildings and so much area to cover, it is difficult in retrospect to differentiate between everything I saw. Or for that matter figure out where the castle begins and ends. I must say though, that it is easy to understand why the castle is such a treat for visitors. There is bound to be something for everyone’s taste.

For me it was St. Vitus Cathedral, a church of outsized proportions. A mind meld of old and neo-Gothic. The sheer size of the cathedral did not immediately become apparent due to its placement in a courtyard and proximity to so many other structures. I only realized its scale while standing in front of the main entrance. What I found most amazing was how long St. Vitus Cathedral took to construct. In medieval Europe it was not uncommon for construction on large cathedrals to take up to a century. The technologies of the age did not allow for speedy building processes. Interestingly, it seems the longer something took to build, the longer it would last. The building materials of stone and more stone could withstand the elements, as well as the test of time. St. Vitus shares this similarity with many European cathedrals.

The Gothic - St. Vitus Cathedral

The Gothic – St. Vitus Cathedral

Unfinished Business – A Construction Project For The Ages
What makes St. Vitus an outlier is just how long it took to complete, almost six hundred years. Work on the cathedral started with the laying of a cornerstone in 1344. Frenchman Matthias of Arras was brought in to oversee its design and construction. Less than a decade later, Matthias was dead. Then a German prodigy, by the name of Peter Parler, was brought in to continue the work. Parler toiled for nearly a half century. By the time of his death at the end of the 14th century, only the choir and south transept had been completed.

This began a strangely stagnant period that stretched over the next four and half centuries. The incomplete edifice was not torn down, it was not finished it just stood on the castle grounds half-built. No one quite knew what to make of it. Finally, in the mid-19th century as Czech nationalism began to soar so did the cathedral. Work was restarted. It took almost another century to complete.  The finished cathedral suffered from a split architectural personality, its eastern side Old Gothic, its western side Neo-Gothic. What I found most impressive was the gigantic south portal. Not just its size, but the fact that it was finished only in 1953, the last year of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia. The completion of St. Vitus Cathedral under communism, was just as unfathomable as the length of time it took to finish. An act of patience, dedication and will power against the odds and era in which it finally was brought to fruition.  It “only” took twenty-nine generations worth of artistic magnificence, indifference and stubbornness to finally see it through.

Golden Lane - Prague Castle

Golden Lane – Prague Castle

Golden Lane – This Moment Might Last Forever
The last place I visited in the castle complex was by far the most enchanting, The Golden Lane, a street of colorful facades fronting modest homes that were built to first house sharpshooters who once guarded the castle. Later it was home to goldsmiths, from which its name derives. Such was its charm that I expected the Seven Dwarfs to come rollicking down the cobbled lane any moment. Due to the heavy skies and the fact that it was late afternoon, the usually crowded lane was nearly vacant. All the kitsch filled souvenir shops were shuttered. A silence hung over it as heavy as the air. Lamps along the lane began to twinkle on, adding a bit of quaint illumination to the cobbled way.

I suddenly found myself wishing that I could enter one of the homes for the rest of my life or just one night. Either one would do. I caught a feeling that only comes in the throes of the most passionate love, like this moment might last forever. The homes looked so warm and inviting. The gloomy gray weather that had hung over the afternoon evaporated. There was something both royal and humble about the Golden Lane. I no longer felt like I was in the world’s largest ancient castle, more like I had finally found a home. Now I understood why everyone loved Prague so much, it was a dream that could fit to the size of reality.

High Water Marks – Prague’s Historic Floods: The Vltava Strikes Back

I was fortunate to visit Prague when I did. It was late March and the tourist hordes had yet to descend upon the city, though legions of Italian high school students tried to do their very best to replicate the noise, clamor and pushiness.  The sky was leaden during much of my visit, but the city was still intensely compelling. The gray bellies of cloud that lurked over Prague made its Gothic architecture look more menacing than usual. The same went for the Vltava River which divides the historic heart of Prague. The Stare and Nove Mestos (Old and New Towns) lie on the Vltava’s right bank, while Mala Strana and Hradcany stand on the river’s left bank.

The river’s dark waters flowed past this part of the city at what seemed to be a tepid pace. The Vltava may have been Prague’s river, but it meant little to me. Its name did not have the same cachet as the Danube, Rhine, Vistula or Volga in the pantheon of Europe’s historically great rivers. Staring at its waters, I wondered how Prague could have been saddled with such a relatively benign river. Such a thought exposed my ignorance of the Czech Republic, for the Vltava was not just Prague’s river, but the Czech nation’s as well. The Vltava’s waters looked less than inviting, while its depth, width and breadth did not make much of an impression. This was deceptive, for if I had been there during one if its periodic floods, my opinion of the Vltava would have been very different.

Ferocious flow - The Vltava River takes on the bridges of Prague

Ferocious flow – The Vltava River takes on the bridges of Prague (Credit: Ondrej Kofinek)

Dangerous & Deadly Inundations – The Drowning of Prague
When I think of a flood threatening a major European city my thoughts usually go back to a time before the 20th century, prior to the age of regulation and channelization of rivers. Before dams and their resultant reservoirs created relatively constant flows that mitigated nature’s precipitate excesses.
Prague was no stranger to dangerous and deadly floods. The present day riverscape of Prague is known as much for the historic Charles Bridge, as for the Vltava which flows beneath it. But if not for the river’s tempestuous ways, the Charles Bridge might never have been built. That is because its predecessor, the Judith Bridge, which spanned the river for 160 years, was irreparably damaged by the flooding Vltava in 1342. Construction on what would become known as the Charles Bridge began a decade and a half later. The bridge has battled the mighty Vltava ever since.

In 1784, the river became a gushing terror quite literally overnight. It rose an unprecedented four meters in a twelve-hour period. The fast flowing, forceful Vltava left five of the bridge’s pillars badly damaged, but somehow it withstood this severe test of nature’s swift force. The Vltava may not have been able to bring the Charles Bridge down, but it did leave plenty of destruction in its wake. Flooding of the Vltava took on an all too natural frequency between 1845 and 1890, as no less than four major inundations occurred. Then just as suddenly the forces of nature moderated. For five generations, the Vltava barely broke from its banks. A false sense of security set in, as the living memory of its once great floods died out.

Rising tide - Povoden in Prague during the 2002 flood

Rising tide – Povoden in Prague during the 2002 flood (Credit: Effenberger)

Nature’s Wrath – Ferocity Flowing Into The Present
All that distant history aside, nature has a way of reminding humanity of its wrath. This was the case during the summer of 2002 when the Vltava River was transformed into a raging torrent that threatened to subsume much of Prague’s most venerable quarters and tear the Charles Bridge from its historic role of bridging the Vltava’s turbid waters. A perfect storm so to speak, descended on the area as two low pressure systems carried warm, moist air up from the Mediterranean causing a deluge of precipitation over large parts of central Europe. Northern Bohemia was one of the hardest hit areas. To give an idea of the unprecedented nature of the flooding, consider the German city of Dresden, which sits astride the Elbe River. The Vltava is a feeder river for the Elbe (Labe in Czech), which recorded its highest ever gauge reading that same year, surpassing the previous record set in 1275. This in turn led to catastrophic water levels on the Vltava. While the deluge was considered a 100-Year flood by some, for the Czech Republic it went beyond anything the region had experienced in recorded history. The swiftness with which the flood struck was breathtaking.

On August 11th citizens began to get word through state television and radio that major flooding was probable along sections of the city which abutted the Vltava. Two days later, flood waters began to surge into low lying areas of Prague. Evacuation of the Old Town began that same evening. Fortunately, there had been enough advance warning to minimize the loss of life. Nonetheless, 19 people would die in the coming days and 40,000 citizens of Prague were forced to evacuate their homes. The authorities allowed each of them to take only a single suitcase of belongings when they fled from the rising waters. The Old Town was now vacant in the summer, a rare occurrence by any standard. Many tourists were left to fend for themselves, forced to sleep wherever they could find a spare bed. By August 14th, no less than 29 of the city’s metro stations were under water. Anyone chancing the streets in the districts of Karlin and Florenc needed a rowboat. The city zoo even had to be evacuated. The river had struck a decisive blow against an unprepared Prague.

Charles Bridge & the Vltava River - In the 2013 Flood

Charles Bridge & the Vltava River – In the 2013 Flood (Credit: Ben Skala)

A Lasting Memory – Preparing Prague For Disaster
The first major flood in 112 years had brought Prague to its knees and served as a chilling reminder of the Vltava’s ferocious power. The worst of the 2002 flooding only lasted for a few days, but the memory of it lasted much longer and influenced efforts to protect the city from another such disaster. The false sense of security that grew during the floodless 20th century was all but gone. Next time would be different and so it was. In 2013 the Vltava again burst over its banks, but this time there was much less destruction. Flood barriers that had been erected following the 2002 inundation held the rising tide of water at bay. Prague was safe, until the next flood.

Love At First Fright: Prague’s Powder Tower: Illuminating Shadows

My first full day in Prague was due to start with a World War II tour. The tour, which had received rave reviews online, proved to be forgettable. I mostly recall the guide reciting a litany of details and information that I could have learned from any standard book on the subject. The most interesting part was his ambivalence towards Germans. I had heard that Czechs were lukewarm at best in their attitude towards Germans. There was a long, bitter memory of the Nazi occupation and dismemberment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Prior to that, there was sublimation of Czech national aspirations to Habsburg Imperial hegemony. The guide seemed neutral when it came to the subject of Germans. I found his attitude surprising. At the end of the tour, he informed me that his grandfather had been an ethnic German. Wartime guilt was not black and white according to him. His ire turned on the Soviet Union and their much longer and more recent occupation of the country. Other than this fascinating personal story, the most memorable aspect of the tour was its starting point.

Gothic Grandeur - The Powder Tower in Prague

Gothic Grandeur – The Powder Tower in Prague

An Explosive Situation – From Coronations To Conflicts
The tour began at the Powder Tower, which was one of thirteen gates that historically allowed entry into the Old Town (Stare Mesto). The name came from the tower’s role as a storage place for gunpowder, but it did not start that way. Prior to the Powder Tower’s construction, there had been another gate. Built in the early 1200’s, it was for some reason known as the Mountain Gate. By the late 15th century it had fallen into disrepair. The City Council of Prague chose to have what would be first known as the New Tower built on the site as a coronation gift for King Vladislav II in 1475. It was modeled after an existing tower built for the Charles Bridge a century earlier. The tower’s construction was not without difficulties. Riots in Prague caused Vladislaus to flee his palace, which was connected to the tower. This resulted in construction on the tower being brought to a halt. When Vladislaus moved back to Prague, he took up residence in the safety of Prague Castle rather than the Old Town. Because of this move, construction on the tower lay dormant for many years and the structure would not be completed until the end of the 16th century.

The Powder Tower came by that name only in the early 18th century, as it was transformed into a storage unit for the most valuable of military incendiaries. This also made it a target. When Frederick The Great’s Prussian Army battled for Prague in 1757, the tower, along with the surrounding area, came under attack. Much of its Gothic era plastic decoration was badly damaged and would eventually be removed. The city suffered as well, with 900 houses destroyed in the fighting. The worst damage though, was inflicted on Frederick’s Prussian forces. They lost 14,000 soldiers in the fighting, failed to take the city and ended up retreating. From this point forward, the Powder Tower was more a relic of a bygone age, rather than of any real use for defensive purposes. This is reflected in the fact that from 1875 to 1886 the Austrian overlords of Prague allowed for its restoration in the pseudo-Gothic style it still sports today. The preservation of such a defensive work is telling. Obviously, the Austrians felt it no longer had any military significance.

The Powder Tower - prior to restoration in 1856

The Powder Tower – prior to restoration in 1856 (Credit: Andreas Groll)

From Modern To Medieval –  History Means More Than Reality
The Powder Tower still acts as a portal of entry between the New and Old Towns. For many centuries, it was the starting point for the Royal Route which led through the Old Town then up to the Castle for coronations. It proved to be a different type of portal for me. It was the first Gothic architectural feature I saw in Prague. There were many more to come. My reaction upon seeing the tower was of love at first fright. It was a stark and foreboding visual. The tower looked as though it had been severed from Dracula’s Castle and landed on a modern city side street. The tower may have been rigid and ominous, but it exuded a dynamism and charisma all its own. All other buildings surrounding it, whether large or small, were dwarfed by its presence. The Powder Tower’s effect on the street which it stood, was to make all surroundings disappear from the viewer’s eye. The tower’s singularity caused me to fixate on it. After passing through the arched opening of its lowest part, I felt as though another world had been entered. A world where history meant much more than reality.

I would soon discover that for all its charm, Prague is home to buildings that can intimidate as much as enthrall. The Powder Tower imposed itself on present-day Prague, a finite dividing line between old and new, modern and medieval. I did not actually ever go inside the Powder Tower. Only passing under its arched opening in the coming days on multiple occasions. The fact that I never entered its chambers left me to imagine the interior. I envisioned dark and cold stone corridors where narrow minded medievalists had once issued decrees without a hint of remorse. As a place of passage for merchants, soldiers and aristocrats that controlled access to a world of power, wealth and royal privilege. The Powder Tower made this past palpable for me. The past was no longer stranded in dusty tomes, lost kingdoms or forgotten dreams.

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911 (Credit: Richard Moser)

A Dark & Dynamic Fairy Tale – Into Another World
That the tower still stood after four hundred and forty years, lording over the modern streetscape, was a testament to a powerful past that Prague preserved, a Golden Age Gothicism that was just as formidable and frightening, magnetic and alluring, intimidating and inspiring as it had been while dominating Europe. A dark yet dynamic fairy tale that had been kept alive for centuries to remind of the grandeur of the Gothic. A grandeur that could only be accessed in certain special portals such as Prague, a city that acted as a point of entry into another world. A world that still managed to exist on the other side of the Powder Tower, in the winding alleyways, narrow streets and illuminating shadows of the Old Town.

Poster Childishness –  The Discovery of Prague: Rejection Confessions

The time finally arrived for me to visit Prague. As much as I loathed the idea, I knew it would eventually happen. What did I have against Prague? Mainly its popularity. Since the Iron Curtain collapsed, Prague has become the showpiece city of Eastern Europe. For Americans, visits to Eastern Europe almost always entail a trip to Budapest and Prague. In many cases, only the latter city figures into their travel equation. Hordes of tourists descend on the city to enjoy its immaculate architecture, Old World atmospherics and world famous Czech beers. Prague has become the model for Eastern Europe and a place for tourists to check off the region on a bucket list. Every time someone mentioned Prague I would cringe in anticipation of what they were about to say: “It’s amazing” “You have to go there” “It is like a fairy tale” “I love Prague”. In many respects, Prague had become the golden child of European cities. I met more people who had been to Prague than Vienna. Vienna was further East, but Prague was still where hundreds of thousands of tourists received their introduction to the former Eastern Bloc.

Vltava River & Charles Bridge looking towards Castle Hill in Prague

For What They Dream Of – Vltava River & Charles Bridge looking towards Castle Hill in Prague (Credit: Peter K Burian)

Misty-Eyed Memories – Making The Gothic Sparkle
There was also the Prague that I learned about from an American expat post-college student who had found and lost love in the city. His name was Thomas and I spent a summer working with him collecting fees at a campground on a distant shoreline along the Atlantic seaboard. Thomas had taught English in Prague, and as I would later learn, so had innumerable wayward Americans who had no idea what to do after college. He had fallen in love with a Czech girl. He loved her so much that he cheated on her. The relationship had collapsed, but the love was still there, lost in a misty-eyed memory that came back in the constant banter about her beauty and intellect. These dreamy reminiscences were interspersed with exhortations on the superiority of Czech culture and beer. It was hard to figure out what he was more in love with, the Bohemian ideal of Prague or the lost woman.  They were likely one and the same. His story was fascinating, but Prague sounded like a place where expats went to avoid real life. That should have appealed to me. In this case though, I imagined a city full of over educated, lost expats drinking themselves to oblivion while discussing their philosophy of life in the basement of a café.

Reading up on Prague only added to my displeasure. From what I learned, Prague in the early 1990’s was affordable, edgy and chock full of historic wonders. This version of the city was covered in a thin veneer of grit that only added to the Gothic-Baroque-Mannerist-Art Nouveauesque architectural aesthetics. Then Prague was “discovered”. The discovery went from the tens to the hundreds of thousands, then into the millions. As the crowds increased, so did the prices. Prague went from cheap to affordable to expensive by Eastern European standards.  Perhaps Prague’s popularity was inevitable. The city itself had been left largely unscathed by the Second World War. Its historic core was intact. The Czech Republic’s economy was boosted by its proximity to Germany. Along with Hungary, it became a darling of the West, more Mitteleuropa than Eastern European. Prague was the post-communist success story everyone wanted to see. And so the city was given a good scrubbing, a glossy restoration that even made the Gothic sparkle.

The Good Soldier’s Spiritual Home – A City Of Madness & Mockery
The popularity and poster childishness of Prague grated on me to the point where I decided to willfully ignore learning much of anything about the city. I kept Prague at a safe mental distance, relegating it to a second-tier status, one of those places that I could care less about visiting. All this was done because of a foolish fetish for the out of the way, forgotten and relatively unknown in Eastern Europe. I had something to prove against Prague and to myself. My resistance began to breakdown when I started reading a book about the spectacular assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the Nazi occupation of the city. I suddenly felt an urge to see the city which had played such a large role in the events that resulted in the murder of one of the highest ranking Nazi officials. I was especially interested in visiting the church where the assassins were trapped and then fought to the death.

Very few people get interested in Prague due to World War II. The city was almost entirely spared of physical destruction, but the human toll was an entirely different story. The Czech population suffered grave brutality at the hands of the Nazis. Heydrich’s assassination had been an anomaly, just as Prague’s escape from Allied Bombing had been a rarity in central Europe. I now had a reason to visit Prague, but I was still not entirely convinced. Soon thereafter, I became engrossed in the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek, a novel that lampoons the madness of World War I. Prague figured heavily in the author’s life and is the spiritual home of Svejk. The Good Soldier Svejk was born from the cynical, anarcho-bohemian, ready for revolution Prague of the early 20th century. His Prague was the home of conspiracies and mockery, Svejk delighted in nastiness. Laughing out loud in the face of authority. What city and culture gave rise to such an attitude was worth exploring.

The path is clear - Charles Bridge just after dawn

The path is clear – Charles Bridge just after dawn (Credit: Estec GmbH)

Expectation Of A Destination – Extra Baggage
I could no longer hide my interest, Prague was going to be my next destination. As much as I hated to admit it, there was a sense of inevitability about visiting the Czech capital. What kind of self-professed Eastern European-phile would not visit Prague. It went with the territory so to speak. Would any American visit Eastern Europe multiple times without traveling to Prague? I must have been the only one to fathom such a heresy. I could not bring myself to avoid it. Prague had won me over the Atlantic. And thus I landed on a gloomy spring Sunday at Vaclav Havel Airport with little idea of what to expect other than the very best.

An Age Old Problem – Hungary’s Demographic Die Off

Next time someone tells me that the world is getting too crowded, I am going to tell them about what has happened in Eastern Europe over the last twenty-seven years. Dating from just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the region has experienced an unprecedented peacetime drop in its population. In 1990, there were 310 million people living in the region, by 2016 that number had fallen to 292 million. That is a net loss of 18 million people or the equivalent population of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. Three entire nations worth of people have disappeared. Put another way, there were 310 million people living in the United States in 2011. If the same thing had happened in America, the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri and Nebraska would have become entirely depopulated in a generation and a half.

The reasons for this decline in Eastern Europe’s population are multi-faceted, they include lower birthrates, outward migration to richer western countries, alcohol or drug abuse and an aging demographic. Though some of these trends have slowed, Eastern Europe is suffering a demographic crisis that looks to accelerate in the coming decades. Fewer workers will be forced to support more and more pensioners. The effects on welfare, health care and fiscal discipline in countries across the region will be drastic. Not one nation in Eastern Europe has figured out how to deal with this situation. To get a better idea of what has occurred, it is instructive to focus on one specific country, in this case Hungary.

Hungary - Population Decline 2006 - 2017

Hungary – Population Decline 2006 – 2017 (Credit: Hungarian Central Statistical Office)

The Land of Loneliness– The 1950’s All Over Again
In the eight decades which stretched from 1870 until 1950, the population of Hungary only dropped in one of them. That was during the 1940’s, when due to the Second World War, Holocaust and the post-war expulsion of ethnic German and Slovak minorities the population of Hungary declined. Paradoxically, the imposition of hardline Stalinism led to a population recovery. Onerous laws such as childless parents being subjected to a special tax and the banning of abortion made having children almost compulsory. Beginning in the late 1950’s and lasting for the next two decades, the country’s population grew. Ironically, near the end of the 20th century when communist control loosened and then collapsed, population decline became entrenched. Since the mid-1980’s the population has consistently fallen. To the point that today, Hungary has about the same population as it did in the late 1950’s, only this time it is much older.

During my many visits to the country, I have been able to glean several anecdotal pieces of demographic evidence from personal observation. I am always a bit surprised when I see a Hungarian woman pushing a baby around in a carriage or walking along with a couple of toddlers. It is not a very common sight, at least in my experience. This is not all that much of a surprise considering how much time I have spent in Budapest. The statistical evidence bears that out. Though young people flock to the city for the greater educational, employment and entertainment opportunities it offers, Budapest has far and away the lowest fertility rate of any sizable place in the country. In 2011 that rate was just 1.13, which is almost half the replacement rate needed to maintain the Hungarian population at current levels. Budapest is a beautiful city, but demographically it is increasingly the capital of loners and loneliness. I have heard many Hungarians say how hard it is to find a partner. Whereas in the United States, young people search for the ”right” partner, in Hungary they seem to be searching for any partner.

Population of Hungary from 1910 -2009

Population of Hungary from 1910 -2009 (Credit: Barna Rovacs)

Population In Peril – Infertile Ground
I often hear people say – mostly stateside, rarely in Hungary – how awful communism must have been. That was certainly true in Hungary during and just after the Stalinist era, in the late 1940’s and most of the 1950’s with mass repressions, purges and very limited freedoms. It was not a bed of roses after that time, but Janos Kadar’s Goulash Communism brought rising living standards and an emphasis on the traditional family. This led to Hungary’s greatest post-World War II population boom. Now let’s be clear, just because the population was growing Hungary did not suddenly become a paradise, but there was social stability and relative economic prosperity. Enough that people could afford to have several children. Hungary reached its highest population ever in 1981-82 with 10,710,000, almost a million more than live in the country today.

From personal experience, I have met or know many more Hungarian women in their thirties and forties without, rather than with, children. Some of this can be put down to the increasing number of women who work. Also, without a large social welfare safety net, Hungarians are left to fend for themselves in the unforgiving world of capitalism. In the countryside, the problem seems to be much worse. Traveling through the rural hinterlands, in those villages that time seems to have forgotten, I rarely see any children at all. Conversely, there are lots of people who are either pensioners or on the verge of senior citizenship. It is quite telling that a land as rich in agriculture as Hungary has so few people now working that land, hardly any of whom are young. Mechanization has made the need for large families working on farms a thing of the past. For example, I have never seen anyone under the age of fifty running a tractor in the Hungarian countryside. In this way, Hungary and to a great extent much of Eastern Europe mirrors the process of urbanization which continues to transform the modern world.

The Price Of Life – Future Shock
The greatest transformation of modern Hungarian society though, came from the collapse of communism. As communism sank, so did the fertility rate. That has continued into the age of capitalism. Today, young people are a dwindling minority in Hungary.  According to figures recently published by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, there are 1.4 million people under the age of fourteen in the nation. This is 1.1 million less than there were in 1960. The demographic consequences of the dwindling youth population for the future Hungarian state looks pretty dire. It will be difficult, if not impossible for the government to keep social services at a functioning level. The tax base will not exist. Hopes of an increase in immigration have proven  futile. A society that still has a majority of the population that recalls the Soviet’s long and odious occupation is unlikely to accept large numbers of foreigners. Unless there is a radical change in attitude or circumstances, the future of Hungary will mean less Hungarians. The same could be said for all the nations of Eastern Europe.

A Passion For Public Consumption – Austria-Hungary’s Picture Postcards: The Zempleni Museum Collection

One of the great joys of my youth was collecting sports cards. There was nothing quite like going to the convenience store and seeing that a new box of football, baseball or basketball cards had arrived. I spent most of my meager savings trying to collect the cards of favorite teams and players. My careless treatment of these prized possessions ended up rendering them worthless. Then again, I was not in it for the money. Like many avid collectors, my joy came from the pursuit and discovery of the cards I lacked. The search for these rarities consumed much of my youth. I gave up sports card collecting long ago, but vividly recalled this youthful passion when I stumbled upon a unique exhibit at the Zempleni Museum in Szerencs, a small city in northeastern Hungary.

Before entering, I assumed the Zempleni Museum to be replete with exhibits and artifacts from Ferenc Rackozi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). The war dominates history in the area and the museum is not surprisingly housed in a wing of the Rackozi Castle in Szerencs. I also imagined the museum would display peasant costumes indigenous to the Zemplen Hills, a small mountain range tucked up tight against the Hungarian border with Slovakia. I was correct about the Rackozi exhibit, but fortunately I did not have to suffer through another of those ubiquitous peasant fashion shows that inhabit almost every other regional museum in Hungary. Instead one of the rooms was a revelation that ignited my long-lost interest in collecting.

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Artifacts of A Vanished Age –From Beyond The Empire’s Grave
The museum had an excellent display of historic picture postcards focusing on the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, otherwise known as Sisi, who was beloved by all Hungarians, then and now. The postcards spanned nearly all of Queen Elisabeth’s life and sadly her tragic death. There was a particularly poignant postcard showing her coffin, following her murder at the hands of an Italian anarchist in 1898. The postcards of Franz Josef extended across his long and eventful reign. One of the most arresting showed the grizzled emperor with his head bowed and hands clasped, deep in prayer for the empire’s soldiers fighting in World War I. Just a couple of years after that postcard was manufactured, both the emperor and empire would be dead. This also meant the end of postcards from Austria-Hungary, but collecting of them would continue right up until today.

The history of postcards in Austria-Hungary was told in fascinating detail by the exhibit. These were artifacts of a vanished age. For those intoxicated by a whiff of nostalgia, the fin de siècle era represented on the postcards was redolent of the life of Austria-Hungary, which lasted from 1867 – 1918. That time frame also spanned the rise and resulting golden age for picture postcards. This age lived again through what I encountered at the Zempleni Museum. There were a couple of hundred postcards on display. These were just a tiny proportion of its massive historic postcard holdings. The museum is the repository for the third largest postcard collection in the world, approximately one million in all. This was the life’s work of a local physician, Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits, part of whose passion was now prominently displayed for public consumption. Providing insights into both Austria-Hungary and a form of mass communication that joined the empire ever closer together until the First World War tore it apart. The inception of postcards sent by mail tracks the empire’s formation and development.

Bringing an empire back to life - Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits

Bringing an empire back to life – Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits (Credit: Zempleni Museum)

Symbols of Affection – Bringing People Closer Together
The predecessor of the picture postcard was first produced in Austria-Hungary just two years after the empire was formally created. During the autumn of 1869, the Austro-Hungarian Postal Service produced an open postcard on which could be written short messages, the brainchild of Dr. Emmanuel Hermann. His idea was transformed and then soared in popularity. Just four years after its inception, six and a half million of these postcards were delivered by the Hungarian Postal Service. Over that same period artists in Prussia and France began to illustrate one side of the card, giving birth to the picture postcard. In 1874 another breakthrough occurred when the Universal Postal Union made the crucial decision that postcards would only cost half the price of sealed letters. Then in 1878, the picture postcard was accepted as an official postal matter at an International Conference in Paris. In the space of less than a decade the picture postcard had been conceived, developed and formalized. Soon tens of millions of these postcards were being produced and began to crisscross Austria-Hungary, a physical symbol of affection among family members and friends.

The postcards for Hungary were produced outside its borders, in either the Austrian part of the empire or Germany. That began to change in 1896 with the Millennium Celebration, commemorating the thousand-year anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarian Mail Service created a series of 32 postcards that showed various scenes from the celebration. In addition, there were landscapes and historical scenes from around Hungary. The series proved extremely popular. These postcards inaugurated a thirty-year period that can rightly be called the “Belle Epoque” of Hungarian picture postcards. Every type of Hungarian historical and contemporary scene imaginable was portrayed. They became a favored form of communication for those travelling both inside Hungary and abroad.  Families began to collect the postcards as keepsakes that brought back fond memories of time spent together on vacation. When friends would visit, they would often be shown an album of these postcards. For many the photos on the postcards familiarized them with far off places on the empire’s frontiers in Erdely (Transylvania) and Felvidek (Upper Hungary/present-day Slovakia). Others who lived out on these frontiers saw the sights of Budapest represented on these cards. The picture postcard was a form of connection, threading the masses of Austria-Hungary closer together.

Historic picture postcard of the Gazdasgi Bank in Kiskunhalas, Austria-Hungary

Historic picture postcard of the Gazdasgi Bank in Kiskunhalas, Austria-Hungary (Credit: Zempleni Museum)

The Empire Dies – The Empire Lives
Connection is one of the main reasons that people still collect these picture postcards today and why I found the collection at the Zempleni Museum so fascinating. The old photos brought a bygone era back to life for me. An age when women still wore long dresses and strolled beneath parasols as they locked arms with their husbands and strolled along promenades in Budapest and Becs, Kassa and Kolozsvar. An age when the entire Hungarian nation fell under the spell of Queen Elisabeth’s entrancing beauty. An age when an Emperor prayed for the preservation of his soldiers and the empire they fought valiantly to save. An empire that would soon crumble, but still lives on today in the picture postcard collection that can be found at the Zempleni Museum in Szerencs.

Life & Death In Anonymity –  Distant To History: The Jews of Szombathely (Part Two)

The name of Auschwitz lives in eternal infamy, the name of Szombathely in anonymity. To Auschwitz we look with horror, to Szombathely we look away, if we look at all. Auschwitz is extraordinary in its horror, Szombathely is nothing more than ordinary, which makes what happened there in 1944 that much more disturbing. The Holocaust may be viewed as a singular event, it may also be understood as hundreds of smaller actions that combined into a feeding frenzy of genocidal mania. Few have heard what happened in Szombathely, Bekescsaba and Keckesmet. In Nagykanisza, Kiskoros or Kalocsa. These are just a few of the smaller Hungarian cities where Jews made up a sizable proportion of the population. Where they were neighbors and friends, playmates and classmates, upstanding citizens and esteemed colleagues. The Holocaust did not just happen behind barbed wire or in the death dealing rooms of gas chambers, it happened in provincial cities that will never make the history books, along streets that other people now occupy and in places that hardly anyone knows exist. It happened in broad daylight, on sunny spring days and vibrantly warm summer evenings. It happened across all of Hungary. It happened in Szombathely.

Neolog Synagogue in Szombathely - As seen from Bathyany Square

Neolog Synagogue in Szombathely – As seen from Bathyany Square (Credit: Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt)

Insidious Actions – How Could It Have Ever Happened
There is always the question of how it could have ever happened? The “it” referring to the Holocaust, usually in a specific nation such as Hungary and a community like Szombathely. In a provincial Hungarian city, the answer is relatively simple. The destruction of the Jewish population happened because of a German occupation, the complicity of Hungarian officialdom and the gendarmerie, a highly organized and insidious administrative apparatus that enumerated, ghettoized and deported the city’s Jewish population. All the while an overwhelming majority of Szombathely’s citizens were either too scared to defend their fellow citizens or silently approved of the measures being taken.

A combination of these factors led to thousands of Jews from Szombathely being delivered to concentration camps. Very few survived and most of those would leave Hungary in the postwar era. This was how a thriving Jewish culture was destroyed in a few months. The actions carried out during this time in Szombathely are worth recounting if for no other reason than to show how quickly a culture and people can vanish. This is the story of how Jews in Szombathely became as distance to history in that city, as the ancient Romans who had disappeared from the same area 1,500 years earlier.

Memorial at entrance to Szombathely Ghetto

Memorial at entrance to Szombathely Ghetto (Credit: Balazs Kis)

With Extreme Prejudice – A Duty To Discriminate
In the years before World War II, thousands of people spent nights at the former Palace Hotel in Szombathely, but none of those visitors were anything like the ones who arrived to stay there on March 19, 1944. This was the same day that the German occupation of Hungary began. A group of six Germans, led by a Gestapo officer, Scharfurhrer Heinz von Arndt, came for an extended stay. Arndt and his henchmen almost immediately set about enacting measures against Szombathely’s Jewish community with breathtaking speed and ferocity. Shortly after arrival Arndt demanded a large ransom from the city’s Jewish committees. Though payment was made, it did not afford the Jews of Szombathely any protection.

Jewish leaders soon got a taste of what was in store for them. When Arndt met with the local Jewish leadership, a decorated veteran of the First World War, Mano Valyi, advocated for them. Arndt was not impressed with Valyi’s wartime service nor his stature in the community, he immediately dismissed him.  The Germans then handpicked a leader for the Jewish Council. When this one escaped a few weeks later, they picked another who would be forced to do their bidding. A ghetto was established on May 6th following a decree from the occupation authorities, setup in a pre-existing Jewish area of the city.

This ghetto not only held the Jews from Szombathely, but also those collected from surrounding areas. The official count showed that 3,609 Jews were held in the Szombathely ghetto, one-sixth of these came from outside the city. There was not near enough housing for everyone. This led to overcrowding and chronic shortages. Requests for assistance from the head of the Jewish Council to Szombathely’s mayor were ignored. Then on the first of June, a decree was carried out that totally sealed off the ghetto from the rest of Szombathely. Provisioning groups were now banned from leaving the ghetto’s confines. The situation for the thousands of Jews trapped there grew increasingly dire by the day.

Holocaust Memorial in Szombathely

Holocaust Memorial in Szombathely (Credit: Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt)

A Thing Of The Past – The Vanished Civilization
In late June, the ghetto’s inhabitants were moved to the Hungarian Motor and Machine Works. This was the final action prior to deportation by railway to concentration camps. That is exactly what happened as trains were packed with Szombathely’s Jews beginning on July 4th and continuing for the next three days. These deportations were organized with deadly efficiency. The ghetto had been cleared, outliving its dreadful usefulness in a mere month and a half. The Motor and Machine Works, a holding cell for human cargo was now empty. The homes and possessions of Szombathely’s Jews had been confiscated, looted and either taken away or given to others in the city. Meanwhile, life during wartime for Szombathely’s Hungarian population went on just as before, less nearly 4,000 of their fellow citizens. The beautiful synagogue on Bathhyany Square was now vacant, no need for services since there were no Jews left in the city to attend them. Thus, in the short period beginning on March 19, 1944 and lasting through July 7, 1944, Jewish life and culture in Szombathely had been almost entirely extinguished.

After the war some of the four hundred survivors from Szombathely filtered back to the city. The majority had little interest staying in a place where their livelihood, if not their lives, had been taken from them. In the ensuing years most of them moved away. The beautiful Neolog Synagogue was transformed into a concert hall. It was not until 2013 that a small museum pertaining to the history of the Jews in Szombathely and visitor center was opened there. The synagogue was once again being utilized, but not for its original purpose. It was now and would forever be a thing of the past, much like the Roman ruins of the Temple of Isis which could be found nearby. Both symbolic of vanished civilizations, one ancient and the other recent. So recent in fact that there are still a handful of people left in Szombathely who can remember the Jews who once lived there. They too will soon vanish, along with their memories.