From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

If a person lives long enough in Bucharest, they are bound to experience an earthquake. Most of these earthquakes are relatively minor, often in the range of 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. They offer a reminder that the city is within range of some of the most suspect terrain in Europe. Shockwave after shockwave rises to the surface from deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. In the worst-case scenario, Bucharest is riven by this thunderous force causing the ground to ripple, buildings to buckle and a cacophony of calamity to bellow forth, echoing through the concrete corridors of Romania’s capital city. In the 20th century, few Bucharestians were able to escape this experience. Some felt it more acutely than others, specifically those who were in the city on March 4, 1977.

Epicentered - Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake

Epicentered – Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake (Credit: U.S. Geologocial Survey)

Fatal Fault Lines – Undermining Urbanization
By 1977 Bucharest was a massive city. It had been over three and a half decades since the last time it suffered a major earthquake. That was on November 10, 1940 when the city’s population stood at approximately 800,000. Such a concentrated mass of people in a highly urbanized area exacerbated the number of killed and wounded. The city had suffered more powerful quakes in the past, such as in 1802, but the population at that time had been only 35,000. Put in twenty-two times the amount of people in a much larger, more built up urban environment and the number of casualties was certain to multiply. This was the case in 1977. The population of Bucharest had more than doubled since 1940, growing to over 1.8 million people.

In a city that was bursting with more residents, apartment blocks and other large buildings served to expand the urban footprint. This mass urbanization was the upshot of policies by the communist regime that governed Romania throughout the post-World War II and Cold War eras. More people led to more structures, which in turn increased the likelihood that the next earthquake would cause catastrophic damage. Modernity and calamity were on a collision course encouraged by communist policy. All it would take was another slippage on the fatal fault line deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. Every half century or so this had proved to be Bucharest’s undoing. Such a subterranean shift occurred on the night of March 5, 1977 just as many of the city’s inhabitants were turning in for the night.

Willful Destruction - Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest

Willful Destruction – Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest (Credit: Radu Stefanescu)

A Matter Of Luck, Fate & Structural Engineering  – Plunging Into Ruin
At precisely 10:55 local time the earth began to rumble across eastern Romania with an almost unimaginable force. This became dramatically visible in parts of Bucharest, specifically those with lots of buildings that were constructed in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The overwhelming majority of these had not been constructed with reinforced concrete. The sheer force of the earthquake, estimated at a 7.2 magnitude, sent 28 multi-story buildings across the city center crashing to the ground. The effect must have been terrifying. One building after another disappearing into plumes of dust, cries from the rubble, friends and loved ones buried beneath smoldering ruins. Those who were lucky enough to be in a building that refused to buckle looked on in horror. Were they to be next? What kept the structures In which they stood or slept from plunging into ruin? Could this really be happening? The difference between life and death was a matter of luck, fate and structural engineering.

Bucharest was quickly turned into ground zero for carnage caused by the earthquake. This was in stark contrast to the more powerful 1940 Earthquake (7.7 magnitude), where damage in provincial areas, especially Moldavia and Bessarabia, was greater. Conversely, nine-tenths of those killed or injured in the 1986 earthquake lived in Bucharest. Buildings that had withstood, but also been weakened by the 1940 earthquake now suffered a moment of reckoning many would not survive. Almost all the large buildings that collapsed had been constructed between 1920 and 1940. The immediate and dire consequences of this fact would not be lost on communist party officials, specifically the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was out of the country at the time for a trip abroad to Africa. When the increasingly dictatorial Ceaucescu got back home and surveyed the damage, he saw the ruined areas as less a tragedy and more an opportunity to remake the capital into an ideal showpiece of totalitarian architecture. His future vision of Bucharest was as a socialist-realist architectural utopia. The 1977 Earthquake gave him an unprecedented opportunity to make this vision a reality.

Megalomaniacal Ceausima - Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest

Megalomaniacal Ceausima – Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest (Credit: Contessa Binter)

Ceausima – Systemization’s Failure
Anyone who has spent time in Bucharest cannot help but notice the endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that blot the city skyline in seemingly every direction. These buildings and other concrete concoctions. such as the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, were constructed in the years after the 1977 earthquake. Many of them appeared in the exact same place where buildings had collapsed during the earthquake. Other areas with both damaged and non-damaged buildings underwent demolition to make way for Ceaucescu’s systemization development plan. Nowhere was this process carried out with more thoroughness, lack of empathy and willful disregard for historical architecture than in the creation of the Centrul Civic in Bucharest.

The Centrul Civic as it exists today, covers an area of 8 square kilometers (3.1 square miles). It was overlaid on an area of historic Bucharest where a massive demolition had been carried out by order of the authorities. What the 1977 earthquake did not destroy, the Ceaucescu regime made sure explosives and bulldozers did. Damage caused by the earthquake paled in comparison to the aesthetic and cultural destruction carried out by the regime. It was so vast that a new term was coined for this destruction of Romania’s heritage, Ceausima. A word combined from the first four letters of the dictator’s last name and the last four letters of Hiroshima. This word summed up the wanton demolition and destruction that resulted in the reactionary reasoning which followed the earthquake.

Thus, a natural disaster became the catalyst, impetus and stimulus to further the policy of systemization. The upshot of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal scheme was the destruction of 26 churches, monasteries and synagogues in addition to an array of historic homes and cultural buildings in the area that would become home to the Centrul Civic. In their place came massive residential and civic structures made with marble facades and tons of reinforced concrete. Reasons for the creation of this architectural abomination were twofold. First and foremost, to create a legacy for Ceaucescu. Secondly, to withstand another earthquake. Each of these goals were achieved, just not in the way those who created them assumed. The legacy of Ceaucescu’s systemization program in Bucharest is one ghastly eyesore after another. As for the buildings’ structural integrity, they are likely to withstand another earthquake, but many Romanians probably wish otherwise.

 

 

The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

Bells rang out across a wide swath of Eastern Europe. This was no cause for celebration, instead it signified the beginning of a tragedy. Across the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia bells tolled. Further to the north, in the Austrian imperial city of Lemberg church bells began to ring for no apparent reason. The same was true in Kiev. The effect of what was happening could be felt as far away as Warsaw, Moscow and St. Petersburg. A movement was afoot, not one caused by the might of armies, the will of kings or great masses of the peasantry. Instead, this movement came from something much deeper. At its core, the movement caused churches to buckle, palaces to collapse and the uprooting of statues. It made both rich and poor homeless in a matter of minutes. The movement would be one of the most powerful to ever jolt Europe. It emanated outward from deep within the obscure Vrancea Mountains what was known at the time as Moldavia and today is part of Romania.

This movement was a massive earthquake, the likes of which had never been felt before in an area that had long been known as one of the shakiest in Europe. Estimates would later be made that this earthquake measured a 7.9 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the most powerful in European history. Though the earthquake inflicted tremendous physical destruction, it killed only a handful of people. Perhaps that is why today, hardly anyone remembers what happened in Bucharest on Tuesday, October 26, 1802. The event is little more than a footnote in a handful of history books. Yet for the city of Bucharest, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia as well as those who lived through it, the day was unforgettable.

Ready To Be Toppled - The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

Ready To Be Toppled – The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

A City In Ruin  – Damaged Goods
In 1802 Bucharest bore little resemblance to the city that would eventually come to dominate Romania’s political, economic and cultural life. It had a population of approximately 35,000. The city was part of Wallachia, which was administered under the Phanariote system. Though part of the Ottoman Empire, it was given a wide degree of autonomy under Phanariote rulers. This ruling class came from Greeks who were from Constantinople. The empire appointed them to rule over their Orthodox subjects. In 1802, a new Phanariote ruler, Constantine Ypsilanti, had just taken the helm as Hospodar (Lord) of Wallachia. His rule was about to take a turn for the worst due to a natural event beyond his or anyone else’s control. Major events such as earthquakes were viewed by many as ominous portents of worse things to come. Historical sources state that the earthquake struck at midday.  At 12:55 local time the ground began to shake violently. One of the worst earthquakes in history was underway.

The earthquake lasted for ten minutes, an incredible amount of time by the standards of such tremors. This was no ordinary earthquake. Such massive force coupled with how long it occurred led to widespread destruction throughout the city. Even the sturdiest structures were no match for nature’s fury. At that time, the tallest structure in Bucharest was the Coltea Tower. This was Bucharest’s most notable landmark, used both as a bell tower and fire watch. The earthquake proved much too strong for the upper part of the tower which soon collapsed. Its 1,700 kilogram bell tumbled into the rubble. Only the tower’s lower half managed to withstand the initial force. Meanwhile, other structures in the city suffered grave damage. A skyline that had been filled with steeples was suddenly marked by plumes of dust. Churches, monasteries, stately dwellings and humble abodes were all left in ruins. The same was true in the countryside. Damage was widespread throughout Moldavia and even reached into eastern Transylvania.

The Mighty Have Fallen - The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake

The Mighty Have Fallen – The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake (Credit: Charles Doussault)

Fate & Destiny – From Rubble To Reconstruction
One of the more astonishing aspects of the 1802 earthquake is the low number of deaths that were reported. The official toll given is only four, which seems scarcely believable. Obviously, records from that time are sketchy, which likely led to a lower total of deaths than the actual number. On the other hand, Bucharest, where the majority of reports concerning destruction originated from would have had plenty of literate eyewitnesses attesting to fatalities. Historians and scientists have theorized on why so few lives were lost. The answer comes down to population density, specifically the lack thereof. The buildings of early 19th century Bucharest were not densely packed together the way they are today. When one building collapsed it did not produce a domino effect that might damage or cause other structures to in turn collapse. In addition, most buildings were made of timber, which was much less dangerous to health and safety.

Bucharest’s inhabitants may have survived relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said for the city’s physical infrastructure. The earthquake left it a vast ruin. This did not bode well for the newly installed Hospodar of Wallachia, Ypsilantis. Fate could hardly have conjured a more inauspicious beginning to his rule. Amid this crisis, Ypsilantis took it upon himself to energize the rebuilding of Bucharest. He first combatted looting by enhancing security in what was left of the city. Rules were then put into place whereby contractors could not overcharge for their services. Wage limits were set and work was regulated. These measures allowed the city to be largely rebuilt in just a few years.

The Reconstructor - Constantine Ypsilantis

The Reconstructer – Constantine Ypsilantis (Credit: Marinos Bretos)

A State Of Instability – Shattering Truths
Ypsilantis’ rule only lasted until 1806 when he was deposed. His visionary leadership led to the successful rebuilding of what would become Romania’s greatest city, but he would not be there to see its growth. In exile, he lived under the protection of Russia’s tsar while supervising a military barracks in Kiev. In 1819 he died far away from the city he helped recreate. By that time, the 1802 earthquake had already begun to fade from memory. It would not be long though, before nature reinserted itself into the fears of another generation. Bucharest was to be constantly reminded of just how unstable a place it held in the natural world.

Click here for: Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Terrifying Tremors In Eastern Europe – Seismic Effects: Earthquakes In Hungary & Romania (Part One)

Anytime there is a hurricane, tornado or blizzard in the United States, my Hungarian wife never fails to remind me of the genteel climate in her homeland and the greater region surrounding it. In her eyes, the United States is a land of climatic extremes, with life threatening weather and natural disasters an all too common occurrence. I often remind her that before the Danube and Tisza Rivers were tamed both were prone to catastrophic flooding. Budapest in 1838 and Szeged in 1879 sustained horrendous damage from unprecedented inundations. As for tornadoes, I have never seen or heard of one in Hungary or Eastern Europe. And since winter is not what it used to be in the region, blizzards have become a rare occurrence. Thus, I must admit that there is a great amount of truth in her opinion. The United States is buffeted on an annual basis by a variety of catastrophic weather. Nonetheless, Eastern Europe is not exactly blessed with peaceful and serene nature either. Natural disasters have been known to strike there, in some countries more than others.

When I think of earthquakes my mind usually gravitates towards those places that always seem to make the news. These include the San Andreas Fault in California, in addition to the highly unstable Pacific Rim where Japan and Indonesia suffer deadly earthquakes on a recurring basis. One place I have never really thought of is Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary. It is worth mentioning that prior to my first trip there in 2011, I was surprised to hear that things had gotten a bit shaky. A 4.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Budapest region causing some minor cracks in a few buildings. Besides shaking up the locals, the earthquake was pretty much forgettable. The truth is that most earthquakes in Hungary are unlikely to make many seismic waves. The most powerful one to ever strike the country happened all the way back in 1763 at Komarom in northern Hungary. The 6.5 temblor damaged many of the city’s buildings and caused some casualties. Yet, by the standards of earthquakes, it was relatively modest in size and scale.  Furthermore, this earthquake was not a precursor of greater tremors to come. Contrast the earthquake situation in Hungary with that of its eastern neighbor, Romania. Only then, does a totally different situation emerge.

Seismic hazard map of Romania

Seismic hazard map of Romania (Credit: US Geological Survey)

On Shaky Ground – All That It Is Cracked Up To Be
During the 20th century, Romania suffered from a litany of woes. two World Wars, interethnic strife, corruption on a colossal scale and the depraved dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. The last thing the country needed during this time was any kind of natural disaster. On more than one occasion, that is exactly what they got. Romania may not be a widely known seismic hotspot, but it has one of the most seismically active areas in the world, known as the Vrancea zone which is centered in mountains to the north of Bucharest. Unfortunately, that zone includes Bucharest, the nation’s most populated city and Romania’s capital. Five times during the 20th century, earthquakes measuring 7.0 or greater on the Richter Scale took place in Romania. All but one of these occurred in the Vrancea zone.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted with any amount of precision, but future ones are almost certain to occur in places where they have struck numerous times before. By such extrapolation, it is almost a certainty that Romanians living anywhere around or near the Vrancea zone will experience many more earthquakes. It is not just the incidence of earthquakes in the zone which makes them worrisome, but also their overwhelming power. Between 1802 and 1986 there were no less than eight earthquakes emanating from the zone that measured 7.0 or greater on the Richer Scale. That is an average of one massively destructive earthquake every 23 years. Now consider the following, there has been no earthquake approaching this standard since 1986. That was 32 years ago. By the law of averages, Romania is overdue for another one any day.

Red Alerts – Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst
While there are several cities located close to the Vrancea Zone, none is as large or as important as Bucharest. Judging by past experiences, the next big earthquake is likely to cause outsized damage in the capital. Because of this threat, many risk management experts have deemed Bucharest the most dangerous European capital to live in. Ominous signs of potential calamity can be found all over the city center if a keen-eyed observer knows what to look for. Many of the old, grandiloquent late 19th and early 20th century apartment blocks have red circles attached to them. These plaques are part of a program that was instituted by city authorities in the 1990’s to identify buildings which were at risk of collapse if an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or greater were to hit the city again.

Rents in these structurally deficient buildings are a good deal cheaper than elsewhere in the city center. With property prices in the area soaring, many renters have thrown caution to the wind and hope their luck holds. The odds are against them. As part of the identification program, zero interest loans were offered to residents of these buildings. The hope was that they would take it upon themselves to fix structural weaknesses. Few have taken up the offer. Major repairs still need to be made, but most likely that will never happen. The biggest effect of the red placard program was that it ended up reducing rent in many decrepit buildings and their value as well. Residents have roundly rejected the program and very few buildings have been labeled with the warning signs over the past two decades.

Structural Faults – Life In The Vrancea Zone
Of the 400 buildings that were identified as in danger of collapse, most of these were severely weakened by the 1977 and 1986 earthquakes which killed and injured thousands while causing billions of dollars in damages. Hundreds of thousands still have living memories of these catastrophes. Nonetheless, few have the time, inclination or resources to take the steps necessary to shore up their building’s structural faults. Bucharest’s citizens hope the day of reckoning never arrives though many of them know better. The next big earthquake is just a moment, a day or decade away. Such is life in the Vrancea Zone.

Click here for: The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

A Pale Postwar Representation Of The Past – Constanta Casino: Of Spite & Shadow (Part Four)

During the Belle Epoque (Golden Age) of pre-World War I Romania many people would have died for the chance to spend an evening socializing with the wealthy elites who haunted the gilded halls, resplendent ballrooms and high stakes gambling tables of the Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). The crème de la crème of the nation’s aristocracy loved and laughed with little thought for the future during this era. They had no idea just how much two World Wars would change Romania. To understand just how radical the transformation, look no further than the Casino after the communists took power in 1948. Over the next few years, people were no longer dying to come into the casino, instead they were at risk of being worked to death in the vacant and half-ruined postwar edifice.

An anti-gambling law had destroyed the casino’s main stream of revenue. The work to transform this once ornate structure into a House Of Culture was being done by men who in the past would have led the country. The elites and politicos of a former age were marked men, transformed into political prisoners and slave labor forced to work on reconstruction projects. The Casino, which for years had played host to many amazing events and evenings, had now sunk down into the depths of its darkest hour.

A Pale Representation - Constanta's House of Casino Culture

A Pale Representation – Constanta’s House of Casino Culture (Credit: Dan Carp)

The House Of Culture – A Communist Style Casino
By the end of World War II, the Constanta Casino was a mere shell of its former self. The Casino had suffered grave damage due to wartime air raids. Though it was still standing, the interior had been largely ruined, a pale representation of this once fantastical seaside set piece. The communists may have destroyed the Casino’s economic livelihood by banning gambling, but they saw an opportunity to use the building for propaganda purposes. This was the genesis of its transformation into a House of Culture. The idea was communist co-option at its finest. They could take the Casino, give it a new name and superficial overhaul, then claim it as their own. The revamp would not be done by skilled artisans, that was much too sensible an idea. Instead, those that had been deemed the dregs of society were commandeered into service.

A bit further north and west of Constanta, thousands of political prisoners were laboring on construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal. These prisoners were former aristocrats, capitalists, fascists and other so called enemies of the state. The communists picked one hundred men from these prisoners to work on repairing and renovating the Casino. While work on the Canal was done under the most brutal of conditions, those selected for work on the Casino would not be that much better off. They were forced to work from before sunup to after sundown. Living conditions were deplorable. They were underfed, ill-treated and housed in one of the few Casino rooms that lacked windows. The casino was in very poor condition and the prisoners in no better shape. A building that in an earlier age acted as portal to a world of beauty, was now a prison of shadow and spite. Eventually the repairs ended, the prisoners were taken away and the House of Culture was quasi complete. It did not last long. By the mid-1950’s, preservationists were working to get the building protected as a national heritage monument. Whether it was termed the Casino or House of Culture hardly mattered, better just to call it history.

Indefinite Closure - Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino

Indefinite Closure – Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino (Credit: Madavlasie)

Coming Full Circle – Less Than Ideal Conditions
The building slowly regained some of its former splendor under communism, which was ironic considering that it had once symbolized the excesses of aristocrats and wealthy elites. The communist-era Casino played host to a handful of dignitaries, while being frequented by the masses who could now watch movies inside and enjoy a bite to eat. Beginning in 1960, up through the collapse of communism, the Casino was run by Romania’s Central Tourism Authority as a tourist attraction. Instead of gambling revenues, it was now state subsidies that kept the building open. This would not prove viable in the long run. From a financial standpoint, the Casino was ultra-expensive to maintain. Keeping the building up to its golden age standard was next to impossible. On the other hand, it was still a marvelous structure, worthy of great admiration even in less than ideal condition. At least one attempt was made to improve the interior during the later years of Communist rule, unfortunately it occurred at the worst possible time.

During the 1980’s, with the Romanian economy headed toward a full-blown crisis and dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu descending into the depths of megalomania, the tourist authorities decided that the building needed a major renovation. Never mind that a nation having trouble feeding its own population, while resorting to such “cost saving” measures as turning off heat during the winter could ill afford the slightest extravagance. Nonetheless, renovations were soon underway. In an odd twist, the gilt and refinement of the Belle Epoque made something of a comeback within the Casino while most of Romania wasted away. Stained glass windows, new flooring, wall panels and ornate light fixtures were installed. It turned out to be both too little, too late and not nearly enough. A nation with so few economic and material resources could ill afford this kind of esoteric excess. Communism imploded at the end of 1989 leaving government departments in dire straits. This situation led to the national tourist authorities handing the casino back to the city of Constanta in 1990. The Casino’s ownership had come full circle back to where it began.

At Sunset - Constanta Casino

At Sunset – Constanta Casino (Credit: Dan Carp)

False Promises – A Series Of What Have Beens
The post-communist history of the Constanta Casino is depressing. It can be summed up as a series of what might have beens. Despite near continuous efforts on the part of both public and private entities, the Casino has remained vacant. Promises to restore, redevelop or reconstruct the interior and repair the exterior have turned out to be just that. The marvelous façade stands cracked and peeling, paint chips, glass shatters and the walls weaken. Guards keep the curious from getting a closer look. That is probably for the best. The only thing to see inside is one marvelously empty room after another. The Casino still stands for now, but the future is uncertain. Tragically, that is an improvement on its postwar past.

My Moldova  –   A Messed Up Memoir: On The Road To Nowhere

I sometimes think of Moldova as the nation that should not be. Let me be clear about that statement, this is through no fault of the Moldovan people. Moldova is a severed appendage of the old Soviet empire that has grown from swollen to scrawny. Whereas the trio of nations known as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are bound together by their Baltic shoreline, Moldova is a geopolitical paradox, untethered yet landlocked, crammed between Ukraine, Romania and its own breakaway region of Transnistria. A place where Far Eastern Europe transitions to oblivion. The country cannot be easily explained. It finds itself in an extremely confusing situation. Moldova used to be (and probably still ought to be) part of the Romanian region of Moldavia. Proof that a slightly different spelling can be the difference between provincial anonymity and nationhood. Moldova might best be described Romania-lite, just do not tell that to the Slavic or Gagauz minorities who also inhabit the country.

On the fringes - Location of Moldova in Europe

On the fringes – Location of Moldova in Europe

A Lower Level Of Subsistence – Coping Mechanisms
Moldova struck fear into me ever since the first time I learned anything about it. This goes back to an article I read in the Economist eighteen years ago, entitled, “Can Moldova Get Worse?”. The article related just how impoverished the country was and the slim prospects for any kind of improvement. It began with a joke, that was making the rounds in Moldova, “What happens when the economy hits rock bottom? Everyone starts digging.” This was the type of gallows humor that was pervasive at the tail end of the communist era in the Eastern Bloc. It seemed that in Moldova such feelings had never gone away. How could they? Moldova’s average income level was abysmal. It was less than half that of Albania’s, which at the time and still today is no one’s idea of a well-run nation. Doctors were working for a couple of dollars per hour, while most of the labor force made less than a dollar.

From what I learned, most of the citizens outside of the larger cities were surviving through subsistence level farming. This was not as bad as it sounded. I would later discover from other background reading that Moldova’s soil was incredibly fertile. Massive quantities of fruit and vegetables could be grown on a plot of land. All this was supplemented by copious quantities of wine. Drinking is a bad way of combating poverty, but it has been proven in Moldova as a tried and true way of coping with it. A World Health Organization survey done in 2011, showed that Moldovans consume more wine than any country in Europe. From what I read, they have good reason to.

Out with the old and in with the not so new -Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Romanian flag in 1990

Out with the old and in with the not so new -Deputy Gheorghe Ghimpu replaces the Soviet flag on the Parliament with the Romanian flag in 1990 (Credit Fotoreporter)

An Unsatisfying Nationalism – Going Nowhere
Moldova’s people are over eighty percent ethnic Romanians (this does not include the breakaway republic of Transnistria). The Moldovan language is nothing more than Romanian by another name.  Despite the fact, that a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary was published in 2003 by the government. An overwhelming majority of the population thought it patently ridiculous. The dictionary mostly covered slang phrases and satisfied a few firebrand nationalists. It did nothing to differentiate between the two countries, if anything it made them seem more similar. Since the end of communism, Moldova has been pulled between two entities, the Romanian and Russian spheres of influence. Romania has been in no condition to adsorb Moldova. Moldova is too impoverished and corrupt. The assimilation of such a weak state would only exacerbate the same types of problems that already exist in Romania while at the same time creating others.

The Soviet Union and now Russia is the problem for Moldova that will not go away. Romanians know Moldova as Bessarabia, which was taken from them by the Stalinist Soviet Union. The most famous thing to come out of Moldova during Soviet rule was the frosty Leonid Brezhnev, who made a name for himself as a purging party boss. The early years of Soviet rule (1940-41 and 1945 – 1953) were marked by starvation and deportations or worse. The numbers affected are measured in the hundreds of thousands. Only later did the country begin to enjoy the benefits of being part of such a far-flung empire. These included the growth of scientific industry for space and submarine development programs. Another benefit was that the ethnic Romanian population avoided being under the heavy-handed (and by the 1980’s) increasingly crazed rule of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Meanwhile, Russia has used its influence in the Slavophile, pseudo-state of Transnistria (the breakaway part of Moldova east of the Dniester River) to disrupt Moldova politically and economically. The Russians do not want or need another nation in their backyard aligning with the western world. Thus, Moldova’s status will likely remain in limbo for the foreseeable future. In a logical geopolitical world Moldova would have been reattached to Romania, but the world of geopolitics is not logical. The problem lies in the fact that if Moldova became part of Romania, it would then automatically become part of the European Union and NATO.  This is something Russia finds unthinkable, even if it does not share a border with Moldova. Thus, Moldova will remain independent. With its situation frozen in a perpetual present, Moldova will probably continue to be the poorest nation in Europe.

Moldova - Countryside and car

Moldova – Countryside and car (Credit: Ion Chibzli)

A Failure To Comprehend – Opposing Truths
On a political and socioeconomic level this is serious stuff. To a scantily-informed outsider such as myself, the situation looks stagnant at best, dire at worst. Then again, what do I really know about Moldova besides what was conveyed to me through the writings of others. My personal knowledge of the place is almost non-existent. I have only met one Moldovan in my life, tending an almost empty bar in Asheville, North Carolina. For some reason I can still remember her. A tight smile, shockingly unnatural blonde hair and an aloofness that tended toward coldness. I met her once by chance on a mid-afternoon almost twenty-five years ago. She offered me no insights about her country, few words and went about her work efficiently. That was my personal experience with Moldova, an indifferent shrug and semi-cold shoulder. This first impression was likely opposite of the truth, but there was something about her that I found incomprehensible. I could say the same about her homeland.

 

An Approximation Of The Past – Baedeker In Sarajevo: The Unknown Anniversary

A trip I did not take has haunted me for several years. Despite my most fervent wishes I could not make it to Sarajevo for the centennial commemoration of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie’s assassination by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The assassination was one of the most consequential in human history. It led directly to the Great War, which killed or maimed tens of millions leading to a reordering of the geopolitical landscape that reverberates right up to the present. On June 28, 2014 a ceremony was held in Sarajevo at the spot where Princip carried out his deadly historical deed.  Due to the nature of my work, I was unable to travel during the summer of 2014. All I could do was read about the ceremony and dream about what might have been.

My disappointment was ameliorated by the memory of a visit I had made to Sarajevo in March 2011. On that trip, I visited the street corner where the assassination occurred. Little did I know that I could have done another centennial commemoration on this trip, one that had nothing to do with the assassination. That is because in 1911, three years before Princip fired those fateful shots, Baedeker published what was to be the last edition of their Austria-Hungary Handbook For Travellers. The firm had no way of knowing this at the time. Just as they had no way of knowing that Austria-Hungary would disintegrate a mere seven years later at the end of World War I. The 1911 Baedeker’s coverage of Sarajevo makes fascinating reading when compared to how one modern guidebook chose to interpret the city.

The Final Journey - Sarajevo on the inside

The Final Journey – Sarajevo on the inside

A Multi-Dimensional Portrait – The Way To See Sarajevo
The difference in descriptions of Sarajevo from the guidebook I used while visiting in 2011 versus that of Baedeker’s in 1911 are easily discernible. The Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans begins its description of the city with this chilling sentence: “In the 1990’s Sarajevo was on the edge of annihilation.” Contrast that reminder of the apocalyptic Yugoslav Wars with the detail laden description of the city by Baedeker: “Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, seat of the provincial government, headquarters of the 15th Army Corps, and residence of a Roman Catholic Archbishop, of a Servian (sic) Orthodox Metropolitan, and of a Mohammaden Reis-ul-Ulema, with 51,870 inhab. (18,460 Mohammedans and 6400 Jews) and a garrison of 5000 men, lies in a narrow valley of the Miljacka, at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills rising to a height of 5250 ft.” Reading the former, one cannot help but sense that the city has just barely managed to survive a near death experience. The feeling that fate fell heavy handed on Sarajevo, no matter what else is said after that initial sentence – much of which is quite positive – cannot be shaken by the reader.

In contrast. Baedeker opens its introduction to Sarajevo with a withering amount of facts. While they might be construed as nothing more than hard data, these details leave much open to the readers interpretation. From this intro, the reader comes to understand that Sarajevo is a religiously diverse city. The words Catholic, Orthodox, Mohammaden and Jews are all found in a single sentence. At the same time, the reader also learns of a martial aspect – “15th Army Corps” “garrison of 5,000 men”- to be found in Sarajevo. The topographical description of the city’s situation “lies in a narrow valley” and “at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills” is picturesque. The overall effect of Baedeker’s style is to create a multi-dimensional portrait. Modern guidebooks have the difficult task of trying to rescue Sarajevo from the shadows of its 20th century history. Baedeker had no idea of the future. Its job was to describe the present and past. And that is just what it did, making Sarajevo shine like a ray of sun within its pages.

The Old World - Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

The Old World – Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

Bazaar Transformations – The Near Abroad
To an astonishing degree, most of the sites in Sarajevo listed by Baedeker still existed when I visited. This, despite the destruction wrought by two World Wars and that internecine conflict of the 1990’s that was just as deadly. I was able to visit the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Cathedral and Husref Beg Mosque. At the latter, just as Baedeker advised, I was only allowed to enter the mosque “using the overshoes which the visitor must put on.” Business and commerce were largely segregated in much the same fashion in 2011 as Baedeker described a century earlier, with one sad caveat. The guidebook stated that in this “modern part of the town trade and business are mostly in the hands of Jews and Christians”. The Jews were decimated by the Holocaust, but the reconstructed, modern part of the city is a westernized, prototypically small European city center, largely run by the non-Muslim portion of the population.

Meanwhile the bazaar is still a vital part of the Old Turkish part of town where Bosniaks reign supreme. Conversely, many of the stalls are no longer run by Muslim merchantmen, but by attractive women. In 1911, Baedeker pointed out that many of the items on sale in the bazaar were not homemade, but reputedly came from Austria. A century later, I could not help but wonder how many of the “local” items such as rugs and copperware had been shipped in from Guangzhou. The influence of outsiders was just as pronounced in 2011 as 1911. Everything was supposed to have changed in Sarajevo during the 20th century, but I found the changes to be ones of nuance rather than degree.

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

An Unexpected Delight – Recreating A Lost Reality
Of course, Baedeker had no way of knowing that Sarajevo would prove to be the pivot point on which the world would turn away from peace and towards world war. They had no way of knowing that in their two excellent maps of Sarajevo could be found the place where fate and enmity would collude just a few years later, starting a process that would end up bringing an entire world to the point of collapse. It is both endearing and ominous to read Baedeker on Sarajevo a century after the fact. The no frills explanations of an astonishing city, one that Lonely Planet would later call an “unexpected delight”. An unexpected delight when what has come to be expected is war, upheaval and seemingly endless reconstruction. That was the Sarajevo I expected to see in 2011, thankfully what I discovered had much more in common with 1911. Reading Baedeker over a hundred years after its publication brought that lost reality back to me

All The Places I Will Never Go – Eastern Limits: The Unattainable Spiritual Sites Of Romania

Romania makes me feel incredibly sad. This is not because of its tumultuous politics, the post-communist corruption which still plagues the country or the fact that so many of its best and brightest flee their remarkably beautiful homeland for better opportunities elsewhere in Europe. These are all reasons to feel sad about Romania, but they have nothing to do with my own very personal reason. Romania makes me feel sad for a quite simple and selfish reason, I will never get to see all of it. I only became aware of this while reading a travel article on the English language website Romania Insider entitled, “Venerable sites: Places of worship to see in Romania”. As usual, the article was filled with incredible photos and informative text, but while reading it a strange sensation came over me. That was because the article managed to make me aware of the limits to my travels. The phrase, “all the things I should have done” suddenly popped into my mind. Then I began to rework that phrase to encapsulate how I really felt. That is when I came up with “all the places I will never go.”

Spiritual Folk - Barsana Church in Maramures

Spiritual Folk – Barsana Church in Maramures (Credit: Pylaryx)

The Last Joyride – One Final Far-Flung Fling
It has been twenty years since I began traveling in remote and relatively unknown lands. This started with trips stateside to such places as North Dakota, every county in Montana and the Prairie Provinces of Canada, among other locales that few would ever care to see. Somewhere along the way I grew more adventurous, or perhaps desperate, to see the world. This led me into Eastern Europe, first Bulgaria, then Romania, followed by twelve other countries in the region. Amid these wanderings, I conceptualized an end game to these travels, a final, haggard hurrah years in the distance. This would happen when I was finally worn out from my wanderings. Then I would take what would be called, “The Last Joyride.” This would consist of a far-flung trip where I would get the urge to travel out of my system by exhausting myself once and for all time. Leaving me with neither the energy or will to ever travel again. I imagined this would happen sooner rather than later.

The last joyride has never happened, at least up to this point. That is because the more I discover, the more I realize how much is undiscovered. For example, when people tell me I have been everywhere in Eastern Europe, I immediately become aware of the fact that the opposite is true. I have only been to a handful of places when compared to the size of the region. The difference between myself and those who laud me is that they have hardly been anywhere. Thus, they have no idea how little of the region I have seen and experienced. I realized once gain how little I had seen after reading “Venerable sites.” The article covered thirteen of the best religious sites that can still be visited in present-day Romania. These sites include everything from fortified to wooden churches, mosques and painted monasteries. The range of history covered by them could was matched by the aesthetic significance of their art and architecture.

Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Timisoara

From here to eternity – Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Timisoara (Credit: Adrian Padrurariu)

Sublime Depressants – A Church Too Far
The article started off with the Voronet Monastery in Bukovina, a place and land in northern Romania that I have yet to visit. I found the description of Voronet’s blue frescoes enthralling. That was until I got to the end of the informative text blurb describing it. I then read a list of seven more UNESCO listed churches in the area. Rather than inspiring, I found this depressing. I was unlikely to ever visit one or two of these, let alone all seven. The same thing happened with the Barsana Church in Maramures, a region of Romania known for its pastoral settings and folk customs. I have visited only once, for a limited amount of time. Barsana Church’s beautiful murals looked magical, but there were another seven UNESCO listed wooden churches to visit as well. The sheer number coupled with the amount of time it would take to visit each one seemed overwhelming. I could moderate my ambitions and be less of a completionist, but that would be the antithesis of my travel philosophy.

The more of the article I read, the more depressed I got. Next was Curtea De Arges Church, a must see that I probably never will see with my own eyes. If I do visit, it will come at the expense of many other churches. I felt a bit of relief when the Biertani Fortified Church and the Black Church in Brasov were featured, since I have been able to visit these astonishing Saxon spiritual creations. I could say the same about the Stavropoleos Church where I listened to the sublime voices of a choir in full throated vocal glory on a spring evening there in Bucharest seven years ago. There were Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Metropolitan Cathedrals, all worth a visit. While the distance between three of the four cathedral’s location – Oradea, Timisoara and Alba Iulia – was quite manageable, traveling to Iasi way up in the northeastern part of Romania would take a trip unto itself. The same could be said for the Grand Mosque in Constanta. I have always wanted to visit this Black Sea port. That would be problematic, with everything else on this agenda.

Beyond limits - Curtea De Arges Monastery

Beyond limits – Curtea De Arges Monastery (Credit: Alexandru Bobos)

Proving Myself Wrong – To A Place Of Exhaustion
Outliers are always the most difficult destinations to reach. In this case, made more difficult by the fact that Romania is a rather large country by the standards of Eastern Europe. Getting around the country may be easier than ever, but it is still quite difficult by European standards. Of course, if I really wanted to take such a trip to visit all the churches, in addition to assorted honorable mentions, it could probably be done in an exhausting two-week journey. The “The Last Joy Ride” was possible, but not probable. Such a journey would take someone on the outer edge of sanity. This was the traveler I used to be, rather than the one I had become. “The Last Joy Ride” was stalled out somewhere in my mind. Understanding this was like waking from a dream and realizing my travel life had its limits. Then again, maybe I will live a long and energetic enough life to prove myself wrong.

Outside Of Eastern Europe – The Czech Republic: In The Middle of Mitteleuropa

If you want to upset a Czech refer to their nation as part of Eastern Europe. The Czechs do not consider themselves Eastern Europeans in any geographic, economic or cultural sense. There is a good argument to made that for the most part they are not. The strongest argument is based upon geography. The fact that Prague is further west than Vienna and almost as far west as Berlin is worth noting, unfortunately most of the world has failed to recognize this fact. Divisions of Europe in the media are still made along East-West dividing lines. Only when Europe is divided into three separate geographical spheres: eastern, western and central does the Czech Republic get grouped into something other than the east. Those who value nuance over the stereotypical will recognize that the Czech Republic’s location places it at the heart of Mitteleuropa, a historical and regional designation that was at its strongest prior to the World Wars. This region consists of historically German and Habsburg lands, with the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia squeezed in between. It was, as it always has been, at the heart of Europe.

Things began to change during the Cold War when Europe was transformed into a bipolar world, with an Iron Curtain dividing it into eastern and western spheres. The Czechs fell on the wrong side of that curtain and are still largely seen as part of that sphere today. The Cold War severed the Czechs from their historical relationships with Austria and much of Germany. Suddenly, Bohemia and Moravia were east of center rather than at the center of Central Europe. The Czechs were cast into a new role, as members of the Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact under the Soviet sphere of influence. This situation may now be history, based on a long since vanished geo-political situation, but the stigma still exists. The Eastern Bloc legacy still casts a long shadow across the Czech Republic and affects how the nation is viewed by outsiders.

For many, the Czech Republic is not that far removed from Czechoslovakia, but for the Czechs nothing could be further from the truth. The Czech Republic is much richer, freer and progressive than the archaic communist state that hindered its growth for far too long. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe are still synonymous in for many people. The question begs to be asked, just how Eastern European is the Czech Republic.? The answer, like everything else in this region, is complex.

Central To Europe - The Czech Republic & Mitteleuropa

Central To Europe – The Czech Republic & Mitteleuropa (Credit: Grossgliederung Europas – NordNordWest)

Between Western Prosperity & Eastern Aspirations – A Post-Communist Utopia
Economically, the Czech Republic straddles eastern and western Europe. The Czechs have largely managed to escape from the dire economic legacy of communism and the chaos of the early 1990’s transition to capitalism and a market economy. The economy has grown to such an extent that it is the envy of fellow former Eastern Bloc members. Some commentators have gone so far as to call it the “Utopia of Eastern Europe.” Such hyperbole does contain many seeds of truth. For instance, the Czech Republic has a higher GDP per person than any of the nations that were considered part of “Eastern Europe” during the Cold War except for Slovenia. And its ultra-low unemployment rate is positively utopian when compared with those same nations.

The picture is different though when the Czech Republic is compared with Austria or Germany. It comes nowhere close to either in terms of economic development or GDP per person. Yet its close geographic proximity to these economic powerhouses has done much to aid its rapid development. It helps that these two nations shared a Mitteleuropa culture with the Czechs for over five hundred years. Taking the long view of the region’s history, communism is an aberration while the relationship between the Czechs and Germanic peoples has been nearly continuous. Due to that long-standing relationship the Czech Republic gets a high degree of direct investment from Germany and Austria due to its low labor costs, highly educated workforce and a population known for its strong work ethic. To a large extent, the Czechs act as an economic bridge for Europe, between western prosperity and eastern aspirations.

The Heart Of Europe - The Czech Republic's location in the European Union

The Heart Of Europe – The Czech Republic’s location in the European Union (Credit: David Liuzzo)

Stuck In The Middle – Back Where They Belong
Ethnically, the Czech Republic often gets grouped in with Eastern Europe because the Czechs are a Slavic people. The Slavs are virtually synonymous with entire swaths of Eastern Europe, think Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkans. It is also true for Slovakia and Poland, though both would rather call themselves, with some justification, central European. The Czechs are the furthest western outpost of the Slavic peoples. As such they do not have a great deal in common with their ethnic brethren further to the east. They are not Orthodox in religion, or for that matter very religious at all. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll showed that Czechs were the second least religious people in Eastern Europe, behind only Latvians. Those great innovators of the Cyrillic alphabet, Cyril and Methodius, spent a fair amount of time in the Czech lands, but the Czechs themselves use Latin script for their alphabet. Of course, the Czech language is a Slavic one, but the nation’s intellectual and cultural orientation is Central European.

Finally there is the issue of geography. The Czech Republic’s official tourism agency has used “The Heart of Europe” slogan on occasion, but in a scientific sense is this true? Perhaps the best way of answering that question is to figure out where the midpoint of Europe is located. Locating such a point has proven problematic, because it really comes down to the parameters used to find the midpoint. Due to these varying parameters, many different locations have laid claim to the geographic center of Europe. These include central Slovakia, eastern Hungary, western Ukraine, northern Belarus, eastern Lithuania and even an island off the coast of Estonia. If any of these happen to be correct than it means that the Czech Republic lies in western Europe. Of course, politics, culture and economics are not scientific in the same sense as geography. It might be better to say that the Czech Republic lies close to the heart of the European Union. Since the accession of Eastern European nations, the EU’s midpoint is now located in southern Bavaria. This places the Czech Republic just to the east of center, putting it right back where it was for much of the 20th century, stuck right near the middle.

 

The Fruits of His Many Labors – Agoston Haraszthy: A Hungarian Dream In California (Part Two)

Wikipedia contains a comprehensive list of famous Hungarian-Americans. The list includes 42 actors and actresses (who knew Rodney Dangerfield and the Phoenix brothers were of Hungarian descent), 28 filmmakers (ever heard of the exquisitely named Nimrod Antal), 47 sportspeople (who does not love Lou “The Toe” Groza), 41 scientists (looking to blow up the world, Hungarians have it covered with Edward Teller and Leo Szilard), 14 writers (Joseph Pulitzer to name just one), 26 musicians and composers (everyone from Peter Cetera to Flea to Paul Simon), 9 politicians and 33 others. That final category happened to be among the most intriguing. It contains a trove of past (Harry Houdini) and current (George Soros) luminaries.

I began checking the Hungarian-Americans list wondering if the name of Agoston Harazsthy might be listed. My heart sank as I scrolled further and further downward in what I began to believe was a vain attempt to locate his name. Just before giving up hope, I found his name heading up the “Others” list. At first, I thought this might be something of a slight, but then I recognized the names of Houdini, Soros and Estee Lauder also listed under the category. Many of the “Others” on that list, consisted of those who could not easily be pigeonholed. Haraszthy fit in well with this group. His own Wikipedia entry lists him having no fewer than twenty different occupations. Haraszthy was a man of many professions, but what would bring him lasting fame really began in earnest over the last twenty years of his life, most of which took place in California.

A Dream Realized - Buena Vista Winery

A Dream Realized – Buena Vista Winery

Dream Chasing – A Man For All Seasons
In 1849, Haraszthy sold off his properties in southern Wisconsin and prepared to move with his family to California. That same year, over 50,000 fortune seekers made the same journey across what would become known as the California Gold Rush Trail angling north and west across Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada before arriving in the upper part of California. Haraszthy also went overland, but on a much more southerly route. He had a good reason for doing this since his California dream involved something other than gold. Haraszthy was in search of the perfect growing region for vineyards. His party consisted of 60 men, women and children with Haraszthy leading it safely to the San Diego area. There he began to work towards his goal.

True to his more recent past, Haraszthy soon found himself involved in a wide range of professions which included city marshal, stage coach operator, sheriff, proprietor of a butchery, elected state legislator and vintner. It was the last which most captured his interest. He tried many different types of imported vines on land in the San Diego area. It was not long before Haraszthy began to turn his attention northward to the Bay Area, purchasing land which he thought might be better suited to viticulture. Sure enough, Haraszthy was planting vines on the San Francisco peninsula in the mid-1850’s. The dreary, moist climate would prove impossible to overcome.

A Legacy of Quality - The Hallmark of Haraszthy

A Legacy of Quality – The Hallmark of Haraszthy

Staking His Claim – Success In Sonoma
During his time in San Francisco, Haraszthly was struck by the same gold fever that had lured hundreds of thousands fortune seekers to California. As he did so many times in his life, Haraszthly found a unique niche to pursue. He started a gold melting and refining facility, going into business with other Hungarians in the area. Haraszthy’s expertise gained him a position as the first assayer at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. His new career took a turn for the worse when he was accused of committing fraud. After several years of legal battles, he was found not guilty of committing any crime. The controversy turned out to have silver lining, as Haraszthly was soon on the move yet again. This time further north and a bit inland to the Sonoma Valley, a landscape that was ripe for wine growing.

Haraszthy discovered the perfect California micro-climate for viticulture in Sonoma. He began to cultivate a wide range of vines on hillsides in the area. He soon found success after starting the Buena Vista Winery, which is still in business today. It was there that he constructed the first stone wine cellars in California. He publicized and promoted the region, sub-dividing some of his land for smaller plots which he gave to famous Californians as an incentive to take up viticulture in the area. He also turned back to writing once again, penning the first published work on wine growing in California. He was recognized as an authority by state officials on both viticulture and agriculture. His expertise and innovation led to Haraszthy becoming the first president of the California Agricultural Society.

Mysterious Circumstances – Excessive In The Extreme
With so much success, it is remarkable that Haraszthy did not settle down and enjoy the fruits of his many labors. A cursory review of his life reveals a man who was habitually restless, constantly striving for new innovations. He could never get enough of his passions. His appetite for wine growing was excessive in the extreme. He soon overextended himself, running into trouble paying down the heavy debts he had incurred while developing Buena Vista. He was struggling to make ends meet when his vineyards were struck by phylloxera, the outbreak of this deadly disease struck without warning. It caused vines to wither and rot. Haraszthy’s genius did nothing to combat its lethality. His dream slowly died right before his eyes, the feeling of helplessness must have been immense. In the past, he had been able to overcome all obstacles, whether financial or climatic, but against phylloxera he was helpless. Sadly, he was reduced to declaring bankruptcy. The end was near for him, not just in Sonoma Valley, but also in life.

The final act of Haraszthy’s life played out in a bizarre incident. In 1868, he moved to Nicaragua and threw all his energy into yet another enterprise. Haraszthy started a sugar plant, which was to be used in the production of rum which he would then import to the United States. This was another frontier that Haraszthy looked to conquer. That would prove to be impossible as Haraszthy mysteriously disappeared into a river. Searchers did not find any hard evidence of Haraszthy’s disappearance, no bones, no clothing, not a shred of hard evidence. He was just gone. Some posited that he had been attacked and eaten by alligators who frequented the river where he was last seen. Others thought it might have been foul play Whatever happened, Haraszthy’s disappearance left history with only one thing that has lived on well beyond his remarkable life, an incredible legacy.

The Ultimate Immigrant – Agoston Haraszthy: Hungarian Ambition Arrives In America (Part One)

There are certain people in history who did so many important things that it is hard to imagine how they had the energy, let alone the time, to do them all. One of these is the Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy. The name will not be found in many history books in Hungary and hardly any in the United States. Haraszthy was not a king, minister, politician or general. He did not pass any major laws, issue important decrees or gain glorious victories on the field of battle. He was a nobleman and so much more. Haraszthy’s life was about action and innovation, travel and pioneering endeavors. Many of his endeavors have passed the ultimate test, that of time and yet only a handful of people know the name or remember what he did. This is such a shame because Agoston Haraszthy’s life was one of accomplishments, both great and small.

Agoston Haraszthy - The Great Innovator

Agoston Haraszthy – The Great Innovator

Every Breaking Wave – A Force Of Undeniable Vigor
To paraphrase a line from Marcel Proust’s great literary work, Remembrance of Things Past, the world was not created once and for all time, instead it is created every day. That would be a fitting epitaph for the life of Agoston Haraszthy. For he created and recreated the world every day of his life, such was his genius for innovation that he was constantly involving himself in new activities. These would take him halfway around the world, until his life finally came full circle. Life and thought flowed out of him like a river that carried ideas to distant shores. The river is a fitting motif for Haraszthy’s life as he was born close to one of the greats, the Danube in Futok (Futog in northern Serbia). He would mysteriously disappear in another river half a world away at the end of his life. Rivers and oceans were avenues of transport that allowed Haraszthy to chase his dreams to distant shores. He rode the crest of many waves to far off lands. And when those waves finally broke, he always found another one to drive him and his ideas forward.

Ambitious and enterprising. To understand everything Agoston Haraszthy accomplished, one must understand that he was the very essence of those two words. Haraszthy was a man with massive amounts of ambition that manifested through an incredible array of enterprising activities. These traits did not come from the pursuit of wealth or an impoverished upbringing. They came from something else, an unquantifiable surge of frenetic activity that stirred deep within him. One of the most fascinating aspects of Haraszthy’s character was that while he had the means to stay in Hungary and live the life of a nobleman on a family estate, he chose to do otherwise. His homeland may have been Hungary, but he lived for his dreams. These dreams he would pursue with an undeniable vigor. This vigor had time for family as well as work. Married at the age of twenty-one to Eleonora Dedinszky, the couple would soon have six children. There was also the existential motivating threat of the Austrian Emperor who looked at men such as Haraszthy with barely disguised disdain. Haraszthy had supported the Hungarian independence movement of Lajos Kossuth. The upshot of his involvement was that it forced Haraszthy to look for other opportunities outside his homeland. This did nothing to deny Haraszthy from pursuing the abiding ambition of his early life, travel to the United States.

Town Builder - Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Town Builder – Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Cultivating Opportunity – Taming The Untamed Frontier
The trip to America was the beginning of Haraszthy as a pioneer. America was a land made for pioneers, with an outsized canvas on which they could go about creating an entirely new world. Haraszthy first traveled to America in 1840 with a lone cousin in tow. The country they found was a young republic, one on the move. Expansion was the motivating force pulling pioneers westward. This suited Haraszthy who was not content to stop on the East Coast, instead he surged deep into the interior. He traveled to what is today the Upper Midwest. At the beginning of the 1840’s it was an untamed frontier. Upon a stretch of prairie in southern Wisconsin, Haraszthy created that future state’s first Euro-American settlement. Along the Wisconsin River he founded “Szeptaj”, which means “beautiful place” in Hungarian. After a succession of name changes it eventually became Sauk Center. Here was a settlement that had staying power, both as a town and for Haraszthy’s family. The reason for that was mainly due to Haraszthy’s initiative.

Among his enterprises included crop cultivation, raising livestock, constructing mills, running a store, developing a brick kiln and operating a steamboat. The one enterprise closest to his heart and a direct import from his homeland was the cultivation of vineyards. Haraszthy had worked closely as a wine grower with his father-in-law in Hungary. He now brought a talent for viticulture to the wilds of Wisconsin. Soon he was growing grapes and having wine cellars excavated on hillsides above the river. This was the beginning of the second oldest winery in the United States, one that continues today as the Wollersheim Winery. Such was the success of Haraszthy’s many enterprises in the area that Sauk Center became the first incorporated town in Wisconsin.

A Man On The Move – Travels In North America
Haraszthy was not alone during this time. He worked closely with his partner, another immigrant from England by the name of Robert Bryant. In 1842, Haraszthy managed to bring his entire family to Wisconsin. They would never again return to Hungary, at least not in the flesh. Agoston Haraszthy did return to Hungary in the form of words. As one of the first permanent settlers from Hungary in the United States he took it upon himself to report back to his countrymen about what he had discovered in this land of opportunity. The upshot of his efforts was a remarkable book known as “Utazas Ejszakamerikaban” (Travels in North America). At the time there was very little knowledge of the United States in Hungary, Haraszthy’s book expanded the information on offer exponentially.

The book’s value lay in its eyewitness account. It offered potential emigres a preview of what they would find in the United States if they chose to follow in Haraszthy’s footsteps. This would be of great importance in the years to come as the first wave of Hungarians immigrants left for America after the failed uprising of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Haraszthy would also leave his adopted home in Wisconsin during this time. In 1848, he like tens of thousands of others, was struck by the stories he heard of gold discoveries in California. Incredible opportunities awaited those with the energy and vitality to travel there. It was not long before Haraszthy was planning to make discoveries of his own in a new land of opportunity.