An Austro-Hungarian State Of Mind – Bridge on the Leitha: Together One Last Time

Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never thought much about the way in which that name was ordered. It always seemed quite natural that Austria would be in front of Hungary. Austria is wealthy and more well known, Hungary still shadowed, if no longer shrouded in my mind, by its decades hidden away behind an Iron Curtain. Their capital cities belie these differences, Vienna is much larger and its sparkle much greater than that of Budapest. The two cities’ relationship is the same today as it was back in the days of empire. The way it was happens to be the way it is today. Then there is the not insignificant matter of semantics. To say Hungary-Austria just does not sound right.

There is also the matter of chronology.  Austria allowed Hungary into the empire, not the other way around. Austria came first and Hungary followed. Even the Hungarians recognized this as such. In a language that runs counter to every other European one, the Hungarians still managed to call the empire Osztrak-Magyar Monarchia. That needs little translation because it is the same thing being said in the same way. They who controlled the empire, controlled the way it was expressed and internally divided. This was a literal and spoken truth when it came to Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew it, the Hungarians acknowledged it.

An Empire in Full - Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands

An Empire in Full – Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Austrian Rules – The Terms Of Discussion & Division
Just as the wording of the empire’s name was by Austrian design, so it would be much the same when the Leitha River was used as a naming convention. The river served as a useful topographic symbol when dividing the empire’s Austrian and Hungarian halves. This is not surprising since Austria always managed to control the terms of discussion and internal division in its relationship with Hungary. In an Orwellian bit of irony, both sides were equal, but one was more equal than the other. The Leitha would be a convenient place to divide the empire, at least in a colloquial sense. This meant taking liberties with the geographical and political situation between the two. Like everything else in the empire, using the Leitha was a hedge. That was because the Austrians nominally controlled Galicia and Bukovina, two provinces which were located northeast of Hungary. The Leitha was as distant from those two provinces as Transylvania was from the Tyrol.

There was also the issue of the Leitha’s length or lack thereof. The river runs for a total of 120 kilometers, nowhere near as long as the internal border where Austrian and Hungarian controlled parts of the empire abutted one another. Perhaps this was a case where the Leitha was the best that anyone could come up with as a dividing line. It just happened to be in the area where German speakers gave way to a majority of Hungarian ones and vice versa. Everything depended on which side of the Leitha they were on. After the compromise of 1867 formed the Dual Monarchy, colloquial expressions arose out of Vienna that were expressive of the way Austrians viewed the empire.

Cisleithania - Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray

Cisleithania – Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Superiority Complex – A Detrimental Delusion
The Austrian lands were Cisleithania, meaning “on this side of the Leitha.” Conversely, Hungarian lands were Transleithania. Tellingly, the prefix in that term denoted “beyond”. This meant Hungary was the other or the outsider. In other words, it was foreign, obscure and meant to seem lesser. The implication of using Cisleithania was that the Austrian side of the border stood for civilization, refinement and culture. While the Hungarian side, Transleithania was the wild east, a land beyond normal in the minds of the Austrian powers that be. Then again, what did it say that Austrian weakness forced them to bring in the Hungarians as equal partners. The Austrian’s superiority complex was delusional. They needed the Hungarians in order to maintain their status. The Hungarians would have gladly taken complete independence. Being one-half of the Dual Monarchy was the next best thing. More than the Leitha divided Austrians and Hungarians, but setting an internal border there met each other’s needs. As usual, the Austrians came out feeling better about themselves, even if deep down inside they knew it was just a cover for their own weakness.

Today, the Leitha is just another small river and not even that during certain seasons. The river’s greatest claim to notoriety is that it eventually flows into the mighty Danube. It has long since lost its geopolitical raison d’etre.  The Leitha is now lifeblood to farmers and others who live close by it in eastern Austria. The river’s historical resonance vanished along with the empire that once made it famous in the early 20th century. For those few who recall the stature it once held, the Leitha offers a fascinating example of the fluidity of borders, both real and imagined. For the Leitha was a real border to the inhabitants of Lower Austria, especially Vienna, who viewed it as a point of differentiation. It was also an imaginary border, one given definition by a colloquialism that was informed as much by the imagination as facts on the ground. This us and them mentality showed that when it came to Austria-Hungary, the ruling powers were not on the same side. Cisleithania and Transleithania were a subtle expression of a known truth.

A Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blueA Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blue

A Different Kind of Blue – Transleithania in light and darker blue (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Bridging A Troubled Relationship – Unified & Divided
Many years ago, the famous American novelist James Michener wrote a work of non-fiction called The Bridge at Andau. The book centered around the story of Hungarians escaping to Austria and the free world during the 1956 Revolution by way of a small footbridge near the Austrian border town of Andau. Perhaps someone in the future will write a book with a similar title about a bridge and town close to the modern Austria-Hungary border. The book could be called Bridge on the Leitha (Bruck an der Leitha). Ostensibly a work of history, the title acting both metaphorical and factual. The “Bridge” on the Leitha would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought two great peoples, Germans and Magyars, together one last time. This imperial experiment lasted for less than a half century, but in that short span of time the Leitha became more than a river, it also became a border which divided and united. A border which today no longer exists except to those who know their history.

The First Frontier – Leitha River: Austria-Hungary’s Internal Divide

The sun began to fade as evening slowly settled upon the Burgenland.  We were traveling along the eastern extremity of Austria, the non-touristy part where the Alps are a distant dream that evaporated long ago into the western horizon. The chill of autumn was in the air. It was just me and my travel companion, a fellow history buff, who a half hour earlier had been inspecting the Roman ruins at Petronell-Carnuntum. Now we were speeding eastward along the A1 motorway in Austria, racing against the dying light so we could make it back beyond the Hungarian border to our accommodation before nightfall. The border between Austria and Hungary was still many minutes away, when I spotted a highway exit sign for Bruck an der Leitha. The end of that name sparked a reminder. One that made me recall another border, one both internal and historical that was marked by the River Leitha.

My travel companion on this trip was an extremely knowledgeable American who was well versed in European history. The problem was that European history in the American education system is code for the history of Western Europe. Russia was also thrown in for good measure due to its historical heft. The idea of studying Austria-Hungary was anathema except for academics and armchair historians. The extent to which the history of Austria-Hungary has been taught in American schools falls somewhere between very little and not at all. It sometimes makes a cameo in discussions on the outbreak of World War I when some self-important Archduke gets gunned down in Sarajevo. Other than that, Austria-Hungary is viewed as an antiquated and almost anonymous empire, an aristocratic anachronism not worth bothering about. All this may seem like an exaggeration, but it is not. In all seriousness, even the most educated American history buff knows next to nothing about Austria-Hungary.

A Fluid Frontier - The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit Wolfgang Glock)

A Fluid Frontier – The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit: Wolfgang Glock)

A Little River – A Big Empire
None of that stopped me from pointing out to my friend that we were about to pass over the River Leitha on the A1. I told him that this had been the main internal border between Austria and Hungary during the Dual Monarchy. My comment elicited a rather bland reply of “Yeah.” The indifferent and perplexed tone of his voice was understandable. Indifference, because the Leitha is not a large river or especially notable in anyway. We could see little of it from the highway. Perplexity, because my friend knew nothing of this tepid river in reference to an empire that no longer existed. The border between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was marked by this little river. The Austrian half was known as Cisleithania, while the Hungarian half was Transleithania. The River Leitha thus played an outsized role in the split personality of the empire.

The Leitha’s role in dividing an empire is now largely forgotten. Since the border had long since disappeared in a political sense, it meant nothing to him or the tens of thousands of travelers who pass over it each day. It was strange to think that something which had been rather important not only to Austria-Hungary, but also to the frontiers of those two countries for upwards of a thousand years was now little more than what it had originally been, a small river. And at times, not even that. Due to canals and agricultural projects it is sucked pretty much dry by the time it arrives downstream. I knew that there was so much more to the Leitha than a dry stream bed. Such as its defining role in the region’s history.

In a Dry Season - The Leitha River without water

In a Dry Season – The Leitha River without water (Credit: Peter Haas)

Centuries In The Making – The Situation Is Fluid
The current situation, where the Leitha River no longer demarcates part of the border between Austria and Hungary, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the past thousand years of history in the area. The Leitha does demarcate a border today, but it is part of an internal Austrian provincial one between Lower Austria and Burgenland. This is quite a climb down from its historical role as a border between the Austrian lands and the Hungarian ones. At times, the Leitha as a border was just as fluid as the river itself. It all started with the Hungarians’ arrival in east-central Europe during the 9th century. They kept conquering westwards into the lands which now consist of Austria and Bavaria. This encroachment into German lands was finally stopped in the mid-10th century at the Battle of Lechfeld. Not only was the Hungarian advance halted, but the Germans began to reconquer parts of what is present day Austria. This counter movement to the east stagnated along the eastern shores of the Leitha.

Little did anyone know at the time that a near perpetual border had been set in place. To get an idea of just how long ago this was, consider that Hungary was not yet a Christian Kingdom, instead it was a principality. To its east was the Margravate of Austria, the easternmost appendage of the Duchy of Bavaria. The idea of nation-states did not exist during the Middle Ages, but borders did, even if they were as fluid as a river or in this case were made up of a river. One can easily imagine that the Leitha was much more wild and impressive in those days. A great deal more difficult to cross, especially in the springtime when the river flooded. This made it a formidable barrier, a more natural rather than political one. The Leitha as a political border in a legal sense was still many centuries in the making.

A Defining Relationship – The Other Side Of The Border
Fortresses were constructed on the Austrian side of the Leitha during the 12th century, helping to stabilize and solidify the border. Measures to secure it, made it that much more recognizable. Legal recognition of the border came in the early 15th century when a deed issued by the Hungarian King Sigismund set its placement. Yet it was the Austrians not the Hungarians who grew much more powerful in the region over the ensuing centuries. This allowed them to to define the terms of their relationship with Hungary and by extension, the Leitha as a border.

Unnatural Disasters – Szilveszter Matuschka: On The Brink of Insanity (Part Two)

Often the most fascinating and terrifying people are those that we would never suspect of committing violent crimes. Those rare individuals who outwardly portray normalcy, who are upstanding citizens in their community, who always conduct themselves in a professional manner, who focus on their family or faith and who keep their deepest, darkest secrets submerged until suddenly they unleash the demons that have driven them to the point of insanity. Szilveszter Matuschka was that kind of person. He was a good man with a fine family. To those around him, he seemed to be entirely dedicated to his wife and daughter along with his many business endeavors. A decorated war veteran, Matuschka was a smart, clever man. He could speak Hungarian, Serbian and German fluently. His mind tended towards the scientific. Unfortunately, he would eventually turn his intellect to evil designs.

Family Man - Szilvester Matuschka with his wife and daughter

Family Man – Szilvester Matuschka with his wife and daughter

Changing Trajectories – A Fine Man With Flaws
By the late 1920’s Matuschka was working on patenting several different inventions. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and a knack for business, but there were also hints that Matschuka may have had a less than savory character, such as accusations concerning arson on a home that he managed through one of his companies. A lawsuit inferred that he had set the house on fire to get insurance money. It was never proven though. There were also problems at home, but these were beyond Matuschka’s control. His wife suffered from pulmonary problems. Searching to find a cure for her had cost the family dearly. Speaking of costs, there was also the cost of several failed businesses. Life was not easy for Szilveszter Matuschka, but this was not out of the ordinary for Hungarians or Austrians or Serbians between the World Wars.

Most of those living in East-Central Europe during this time had grown used to hardship. Whether it was Subotica, Budapest or Vienna, those places Matuschka had called home most often up to this point in his life, each one of them had been changed irreparably by the Great War. The war had also changed the trajectory of Matuschka’s life. It had brought him into close contact with high powered munitions and advanced weaponry. The kind that could inflict human carnage on an unprecedented scale. What impression these had made on Matuschka we have no way of knowing, but because of the crimes he would later commit, it has led to rampant speculation. A deadly secret lurked inside Szilveszter Matuschka, until one day it exploded outward. He had been waiting for just such a moment several months before his fantasy became reality.

The Biatorbagy Viaduct in 1931

The Biatorbagy Viaduct in 1931 (Credit:

An Ominous Obsession – Imagining The Unimaginable
During the Christmas holiday of 1930, Matuschka returned home to the town of his childhood, Csantvar, which was now located in Yugoslavia. He brought his family with him, but on Christmas Eve he left them to spend some time by himself walking along the railway tracks that ran through the town. The idea of train wrecks now possessed him. He found this demonic idea so enthralling that he would soon no longer be able to hide his urge to cause one. Other clues to his sinister obsession would later become apparent. There was the time he gave his young daughter a toy train for Christmas. An odd gift for someone to give their daughter during that era. There was his invention of a signaling system to alert trains when an obstacle was blocking the tracks.

In retrospect, Matschuka’s associations with trains or train related items seems deeply disturbing. At the time, no one suspected what he might be planning. He was a man quietly compelling himself towards an unimaginable crime. Matuschka could not control his personal demons any longer. They manifested themselves in what is known as a disaster fetish. In other words, Matuschka longed to cause a major disaster that would provide him emotional and sexual gratification. In his case, the disaster would involve his fascination with trains. Matuschka decided to target a train for derailment that was traveling along a line near the village of Aschbach, Austria on New Year’s Eve. He tampered with the track, loosening bolts on a section of rail so it was no longer secure.

Matschuka then waited in a suspended state of angst. Caught somewhere between hope, nervousness and euphoria. His planned disaster turned out to be nothing of the sort. The train passed over the rails without a problem. Matuschka went home disappointed and deeply depressed. The only evidence he left behind was a three word note that said, “Assault! Revolution! Victory! This was a paltry attempt by Matsuchka to fool the authorities into believing that his sabotage was the work of radical revolutionaries.  It turned out to be a non-event as the note baffled Austrian authorities and Matuschka decided to try again elsewhere.

Trial by fire - Szilvester Matuschka in court

Trial by fire – Szilvester Matuschka in court

Murderous Intent – Points of Attack
A month later, during the dead of winter, Matuschka made his second attempt to derail a train when he affixed an iron bar across the rails. The obstruction was spotted by a keen-eyed train engineer who braked just in time to prevent an accident. This second failure made Matuschka realize that he was going to need something much more powerful to derail a train. It did not take long for him to devise a clever ruse to procure the necessary equipment to carry out his diabolical plan. Matuschka, the erstwhile businessman, arranged to purchase a disused quarry. This front allowed him to acquire explosives, not for mining minerals, but to wreck trains. Matuschka had realized that causing a disaster took more than spur of the moment, deviant spontaneity, it called for a great deal of planning and forethought. This included procuring explosives and selecting a target to terrorize.

By the summer of 1931, Matuschka’s preparation and planning for his next attack were complete. It would occur in Germany, just 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of Berlin. A bomb Matuschka planted exploded beneath a train near the town of Juterborg just as it was crossing a viaduct. The engine, dining car and seven passenger cars tumbled into a ravine. Incredibly, not a single person was killed though over a hundred were injured. Matuschka was able to escape from the area without anyone noticing him. The success spurred him on to attempt yet another attack. He looked towards the east for his next target. He found one on a line he had traveled many times before. The Vienna-Budapest express crossed the Biatorbagy viaduct just west of the Hungarian capital. This was where Matuschka looked to reenact his most recent success with murderous intent.

Click here for: Tragically Explosive – Szilvestre Matuschka: A Fetish For Disaster (Part Three)

Visions Of Beauty & Fury – Csontvary: The Lonely Cedar (Part Two)

There are endless ways to look at Csontvary’s paintings and just as many ways to interpret his work. Ironically, the perspectives on his life are much more limited. His life can be viewed as a tragic journey from a successful, but rather run of the mill professional life to artistic greatness that sadly ended in squalor. During his final years he was plagued by schizophrenia. He would end up dying penniless, alone and anonymous. It would be four decades before his work was rediscovered. An alternative perspective recognizes that because of, rather than despite, mental illness, Csontvary (Mihaly Tivadar Kosztka) was blessed with an almost supernatural self-belief that led him to attain artistic excellence on innumerable occasions over the last twenty-five years of his life. During the periods when he was painting, Csontvary achieved a level of artistic nirvana that very few artists have ever experienced. It was then that Csontvary lived in a world only he could create, one where imagination overwhelmed reality. To attain such a level of creativity, Csontvary had to sacrifice everything to his painting, even if that eventually included his own mental health.

Self-Portrait - Csontvary circa 1893

Self-Portrait – Csontvary circa 1893

The Power Of Place –A Style Forged In Solitude
Csontvary’s obsessive search for perfection in subject, location and light pushed him to travel further and further south, first in Europe and then to the Middle East. His art was infused with the power of place. His paintings took him through Italy, along the Adriatic, into the Balkans, to Greece and onward to the Holy Land among other exotic locales. Pompei, Mount Etna as seen from the ruins in Taormina, the Roman Bridge in Mostar, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the cedar trees of Lebanon were among the subjects of his paintings. Csontvary believed he was destined to be one of the greatest artists of all-time, he selected places and settings that could match that greatness. There was nothing mediocre or matter of fact about his pursuit of perfection. It was intense, focused and razor-sharp. Here was a man with a personal sense of mission, driving himself with utter disregard for everything but attainment of his own personal artistic goals.

The greatest artists – whether painters, writers or musicians – all have developed their own unique styles. These are so distinct that it is impossible to separate the artist from the style. Csontvary enjoys this advantage to a greater degree than most artists. There are several reasons for this. The first is that he spent most of his time in solitude. Perhaps that was how he had to work, without the distraction of others. Artists are known to be cut from a very different cloth than most people, but Csontvary was a very peculiar human being even by those standards. He was never married and did not enjoy close relations with other painters. The lack of close colleagues may have helped keep potential distractions at arm’s length. The absence of formal art education meant he learned and perfected his style independently of contemporary art world trends. He had little regard for such trends, unlike other artists who were well connected to patrons and the art market.

Springtime in Mostar - Csontvary

Springtime in Mostar – Csontvary

A Stimulus For Creativity – The Delusion Of Grandeur
Csontvary’s schizophrenia also distanced him from society. It is doubtful if anyone could have endured a long-term friendship with him very long due to the oddities of his personality. Besides suffering from mental illness, he abstained from smoking, meat and alcohol long before it was socially acceptable in Europe. His demanding travel schedule would have put off others who had less stamina. It took an astonishing amount of energy for Csontvary to travel and work with such intense dedication. Some of his most important paintings were done in areas that were not easy on travelers. These included the exotic locales of Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. It was an exhausting way to work, but also seems to have acted as a stimulus for his creativity. At the same time, it took a heavy toll on his mental stability. With his goal to be one of the greatest painters of all time and the fact that he did not begin this pursuit in earnest until middle age, Csontvary was forced to become an obsessive in his focus and a loner. At the same time, these traits allowed him to develop a style all his own that led to the creation of exceptional works of art, the likes of which have not been seen before or since.

While the solitude in which Csontvary toiled was understandable, it was a drawback to gaining him the recognition he so badly craved. To make up for this lack of notoriety, Csontvary took to self-promotion with the same kind of zeal that characterized his sketches and paintings. This led him to pen autobiographical and philosophical works where he dramatically set forth his story. He cast himself as a genius. To give but one example, he once wrote, “Going to Paris in 1907 I oppositely stood alone in front of millions with only the result of the divine providence, and I beat the vanity of the world hollow, but I haven’t killed 10 million people, only sobered them.”

Such delusions of grandeur became greater as the years passed, a sign that his schizophrenia was getting worse. While Csontvary gained a bit of fame in western Europe, he was either unknown or viewed as a hopeless eccentric in his homeland. He found the lack of recognition in Hungary debilitating. In the last few years of his life he stopped painting, only completing sketches. His erratic behavior isolated him from society, his pursuit of perfection through painting led to depression and downfall. He spent the final years of his life in Budapest impoverished and anonymous. When Csontvary died in 1919 he had been all but forgotten.

The Lonely Cedar - Csontvary

The Lonely Cedar – Csontvary

Illuminated By A Radiant Light – Reflections Of An Artist
Csontvary’s rediscovery came many decades after his death. The recognition that had eluded him in life was finally forthcoming. Beginning in the late 1950’s, interest in his work began to grow to the point where he is acknowledged today as one of Hungary’s greatest painters. While such posthumous accolades are well deserved, they do nothing to alleviate the sadness and tragedy that stalked the final years of his life. This gives rise to the question: Was Csontvary’s quest to be one of the greatest artists of all time worth it? After all, the price of his pursuit likely cost him his sanity. To answer such a question may seem impossible, but a closer look at one of Csontvary’s most famous paintings, The Lonely Cedar, offers a resounding response.

The Lonely Cedar stands weathered and austere, it has managed to survive despite the harshness of the climate. Its skinny trunk and even skinnier branches are tough yet fragile. There is a wildness to the scene, the viewer can almost feel the hot blasts of wind that have buffeted the cedar since the very beginning of its precarious existence. The sky that can be seen through the clouds mimics the aqua colored sea. Both sky and hillsides are illuminated by a radiant light. Amid this beauty and fury, the cedar stands. The scene is transcendent, eternal and timeless, a reflection of the artist. The masterful brushstrokes of a singular genius, the ultimate in autobiographical art.

In Search of Perfection – Csontvary: Awakening The Artist From Within (Part One)

I still remember the first time I saw one of his paintings. Even more astonishing, I remember many of the times after that when I stared at the same painting. It was in a flat on the third floor of an apartment building in Kispest. The painting was enclosed in a small brown frame hung on a living room wall. The flat, as well as the copy of the painting, were owned by my future wife. I knew nothing about Hungarian art or painters, but as soon as I saw the painting I wanted to know more. My inquiry as to the name of the artist was met by a single word, “Csontvary”. I had never heard the name before, nor had I ever seen a painting quite like it. There were ancient ruins, a lake in the near distance with a snow-capped mountain sloping towards it. In the background was a swath of purple cloud over a blazing yellow sky.

Ruins of Greek Theatre at Taormina - Csontvary

Ruins of Greek Theatre at Taormina – Csontvary

The ruins that dominated the painting’s foreground looked surreal, as though they were about to melt into the surrounding landscape. It was a magnificently rendered scene, a fusion of reality and imagination that conjured up a surrealistic vision of worlds both ancient and natural. An integration of the ephemeral with the eternal. It was only later that I would discover the painting’s name, Ruins of the Greek Theatre in Taormina. The setting and subject matter came from Sicily, but the painting was a portal to another world, one that drew me into a trance I would not forget. There was something else I would never forget, the artist’s name, Csontvary. An artist with the talent to make one painting last a lifetime.

The name is just as exquisitely surreal as his paintings. Mihaly Tivadar Kosztka or as those who are intimately familiar with his work call him, Csontvary. That name became his artistic pseudonym. He was a man gifted with a great name and great talent. Csontvary was reared to be a pharmacist and born to be an artist. At least that is what he believed and unlike so many others, he acted on this belief to its ultimate extreme. Csontvary followed his dream down a less than predictable path only to later descend into the darkness of his own soul. When he was done, Csontvary left a collection of paintings that made him one of Hungary’s greatest artists. A man whose fame arose as much from the faith he showed in himself as it did from his prodigious artistic abilities.

Self-Portrait - Csontvary (Mihaly Tivadar Kosztka)

Self-Portrait – Csontvary (Mihaly Tivadar Kosztka)

A Mystical Vision – Another Form of Communication
Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka was born in 1853 at Kisszeben in what was then Upper Hungary, but today is located in northeastern Slovakia. Csontvary’s ancestry was a highly complex patchwork of ethnicities. He was Polish on his father’s side, but mainly spoke German and Slovak while being a citizen of the Kingdom of Hungary. There were other eclectic twists in his background, such as his father’s profession of pharmacist, a career field the young Tivadar would pursue before becoming an artist. Reportedly, he enjoyed working as a pharmacist. He also showed an interest in the field of law, studying it at university in Budapest. None of his early career choices hinted at the world class artists he would become. Most of what is known about how Csontvary became an artist is the result of his own words he put forth in writing.

According to his autobiography, at the age of twenty-seven Csontvary had a mystical vision/spiritual awakening. During this vision, it was communicated to him that he would become one of the great artists of all-time. Taking into consideration the fact, that later in life Csontvary would descend into schizophrenic madness, this vision may have stemmed from mental illness. Whatever the case, Csontvary set off for Rome where he would study the greatest works of Italian Renaissance Artists. His goal was to be held in the same exalted regard as his hero, Raphael. A funny thing happened on the wayward road to artistic renown, Csontvary left Rome and returned home. He then proceeded to spend several more years working as a pharmacist. Only when Csontvary had managed to save enough from his day job to become financially well off enough to pursue painting did he leave the pharmacy. At that time, he had already passed the age of forty. At an age when many artists were past their prime, Csontvary was just beginning his ascent to creative genius and a descent into madness.

Storm - One of Csontvary's earliest paintings

Storm – One of Csontvary’s earliest paintings

Towards A New Reality – The Single Minded Pursuit
Csontvary began a new period of his life in 1895 when he traveled abroad once again. This time it was in search of an artistic education. He had little choice, but to leave Hungary. There was not a single academy for art in the entire country. Instead, Csontvary found himself in Munich under the tutelage of a fellow countryman. Simon Hollosy, was a Hungarian artist and instructor who though given formal artistic training had eschewed the trends of historicism and neo-classicism that marked much of the art in central Europe at that time. Instead, Hollosy focused on realism and impressionism. His influence on Csontvary’s style was considerable. Not long thereafter, Csontvary continued his study of artistic technique and styles in other German cities as well as a stint at an academy in Paris. This period also showcases future trends that would become apparent during his artistic growth.

Csontvary was constantly on the move, absorbing what he could learn at one place before heading to another in his single-minded pursuit of artistic excellence. He spent more time in self-study than formal training. Csontvary was a loner, an iconoclast, a dreamer, but more than anything, a searcher. What was he searching for? In a word, perfection. Perfection in location and light, subject matter and setting. Perfection is said to be unattainable, but Csontvary did not believe that. He believed in himself and the power of art. He was creating a new reality in his mind, long before he painted it on a canvas. The search for the perfect setting sent him on a journey to the south where the sun shone more often. From these travels he perfected his style and created several astonishing works, including the Ruins of the Greek Theatre in Taormina. A painting that I found completely entrancing. It led me further into the life and art of Csontvary.

The Ghostly Terminal – Refusing To Die: Istvantelek (Part Five)

Time stood still while Attila and I roamed around the main workshop of Istvantelek. We were vaguely aware that lingering was not a good idea, but the site was so spectacular that we could hardly contain ourselves. We climbed in and out of one train car after another. We spent minutes inside some of them, amazed as to how much was still intact. We saw toilets that had not been used in years, workers quarters, showers and even beds. Some of these cars looked as though they were ready for a long awaited renewal. Many were the property of the adjacent railway museum, but they would likely continue to deteriorate. We were fortunate to have a look at them before they fell into a state of ruin. At some point in the not too distant future, there would be more glass panels missing on the roof than ones remaining. Perhaps a final decision would then be made on what to do with the workshop and all the locomotives and railroad cars left inside. I am not optimistic about Istvantalek’s future preservation due to benign neglect.

Hell On Wheels - The MAV 301 Series Locomotive

Hell On Wheels – The MAV 301 Series Locomotive

Absurd Attractions – From This World Into The Next One
Before deciding to quietly make our way out of the main workshop, we stopped at one more set piece, a hulking MAV 301 Series locomotive that was impossible to miss. I counted no less than five wheels on each side. This was a locomotive built for brute strength. When I later researched the MAV 301, it was not surprising to learn that it was used to pull trains over the mountains of Transylvania. The massive relic at Istvantelek was one of only two of its kind left in the world. The MAV 301 pulled massive loads with its 1350 horsepower steam engine, fueled by up to 8 tons of coal or wood. Constructed at the Royal Hungarian Iron, Steel and Machine Iron Works it was in service for over fifty years. The size, craftsmanship and sheer power of the locomotive was awe inspiring. The MAV 301 was more than a work of industrial art, it was the will to power on steel rails. Even now, long since decommissioned and resigned to this ghostly terminal, the MAV 301 still communicated some of its awesome strength.

Soon Attila and I decided to leave the train workshop. We walked outside into the late afternoon sunshine which burned with feverish immensity in a bottomless blue sky. Sunset was not far off and the slanting light made the rust around Istvantelek begin to glow. What remained of the glass on the workshop windows turned to molten fire and the tall yellow grass blazed gold in the sunlight. There was a furious beauty to be found here, the emotive intensity of a place refusing to die. The light had sharpened everything it touched, including an immaculately restored water tower that rose above the site, its lower brickwork and octagonal pinnacle honed to perfection. The tower looked as though it had been built yesterday. That was true to a certain extent since it was recently restored. It acted as a brilliant counterpoint to the rest of Istvantelek. The tower’s magnificent symmetry acted as an absurdly attractive opposite to the ruined kingdom of railroading a stone’s throw from it. As we were leaving, the site stood before us in a spectacle of decrepit sensuality. This was what I had come searching for, not facts or photos, but a feeling. I would carry this world with me into the next one.

A Window To The Past - On The Inside Looking Out at Istvantelek

A Window To The Past – On The Inside Looking Out at Istvantelek

Exit Strategy – What Really Matters
We finally headed back towards the main gate after spending an hour and a half on the grounds. Time had hardly mattered to us while we were on the inside. There are attractions in this world so magnetically seductive that they cause time to collapse, Istvantelek was one of them. The idea of seconds, minutes and hours had meant nothing. The world outside the walls of Istvantelek did not exist during our visit. The only thing that could bring us back to everyday reality approached the car as we pulled up to the main gate. The gentleman who had allowed us inside came out of his guardhouse as we approached. As the gate raised up to let us pass, he came out to say a few words to Attila. I could not understand anything that was being said. The man’s voice was low, but serious. He talked for some time, allowing Attila only a few words. I could not decide whether he was irritated, angry or just wanted to talk.

After a couple of minutes, Attila thanked him one last time and we went on our way. I then asked, “What did he have to say?” “He said that someone who worked there had seen us walking around. They told him that he should not have allowed us to go inside. Now he is worried that they will report him and say that he accepts money from people who want to visit. This could get him into trouble.” Attila said this with complete dispassion. His nonchalance mirrored that of the man at the gate who in my mind had put on an exceptional performance. He had made his point without ever raising his voice. I would not have been able to stay that calm if a couple of total strangers had gotten me in trouble.  A little later I learned what had really upset the man was how long we stayed inside. He had said, “I give you a finger and you take my whole arm.” I could not argue with that logic because it was true. I felt a twinge of guilt until Attila said, “Well we got to see it. That’s what matters.” My guilt suddenly melted away.

Restoration & Preservation - Water Tower at Istvantelek

Restoration & Preservation – Water Tower at Istvantelek

Passion & Intrigue – Deeper Meanings
Visiting Istvantelek was about passion and intrigue rather than rules and regulations. We did not go inside to break past a forbidden barrier. We went inside to get up close and personal with history. Istvantelek was more than just abandoned locomotives and derelict train cars. It was about the rise and fall of industry, about World Wars and the Holocaust, about harnessing steam power to defeat time and distance, about bringing the power of a forgotten past back to life. Most of all, it was about two middle aged men searching to find the power of the past in an abandoned wreck of a train yard and within themselves.

A Question Without An Answer – The Holocaust In Hungary: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Four)

It is not sufficiently well known that the greatest number of Jews murdered at Auschwitz came from Hungary. In one of the most lethal actions in European history, 475,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, approximately 75% of whom were immediately killed. When we think of Auschwitz, gas chambers and crematoria usually come to mind. Yet many historic photos taken while the camp was in operation show something else, hundreds of Jews standing on the platforms at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the background can be seen the train cars that helped deliver hundreds of thousands of innocent victims into the hands of the Final Solution.

To make the Holocaust at Auschwitz possible, it took much more than Nazi malevolence and industrialized forms of killing, it also took locomotives, wooden railroad cars and cold steel rails to deliver Jews from Hungary and other parts of Eastern and Central Europe to the camp. And if there was one experience each of the Hungarian victims at Auschwitz had in common, it was being packed into a railroad car and transported to their deaths. In the main workshop at Istvantelek Train Yard in Budapest, I stumbled upon some of the same cars that might have transported Hungarian Jews on their final journey. It was a sobering reminder that dark secrets can lurk in even the most fascinating places in Hungary. Shedding some light on that darkness is difficult, but not impossible.

Deutsche Reichsban - The Logistics Of Genocide

Deutsche Reichsban – The Logistics Of Genocide

Final Boarding Calls – Journey To A Nightmare
Before going to Istvantelek Train Yard I had read that several abandoned wooden railroad cars still sitting there may have been used to transport Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. My brother in law Attila had read on a Hungarian language website that these cars had actually been used in a movie as replicas to show Jews being deported to that infamous death camp. We had no way of really verifying these claims, but either way I made a mental note to look out for these while we were on the grounds. The biggest giveaway for me was the wooden train car painted red with white lettering that said “Deutsche Reichsbahn”. This sure looked like something that might have been used by the powers that be to carry out their insidious plans. It certainly caught my attention, leaving me staring at it for quite some time. Photographic comparisons I would make after my visit would confirm my suspicions that this train car was similar to those used during deportations.

Mass genocide on the scale of the Holocaust would not have been possible without railroads. It made the logistics of mass murder possible on an unprecedented scale. Whereas the Nazis at first had attempted to carry out their plans in Eastern Europe by having Jews rounded up and murdered by death squads, this proved highly inefficient, not to mention the fact that most soldiers began to buckle under the psychological weight of committing innumerable atrocities. Commandeering the railways and getting assistance from the occupied nation’s railroad authorities were crucial to Nazi plans for carrying out the Final Solution. By the time Hungary was invaded and occupied by German forces in the spring of 1944, the techniques to carry out mass murder had been refined to lethal precision. Trains and cars like the one that stood before me at Istvantelek were essential to this plan. The standard car used for the deportations were 10 meters in length. On the bottom right hand side of the car at Istvantelek, the numbers 10 58 m were painted in white.

The Final Journey - Hungarian Jews just after arrival at Auschwitz Birkenau

The Final Journey – Hungarian Jews just after arrival at Auschwitz Birkenau

Numbers Game – The Logistics Of Genocide
According to the Nazi SS manual which provided the rules and regulations governing these cars, 50 people were supposed to be packed inside a car. Each standard train would have 50 of these cars. Thus, 50 cars with 50 people meant 2,500 Jews transported to Auschwitz at a time. This carrying capacity would often be exceeded as much as twofold with deadly consequences. People would be packed inside with little water, food or light on a train that was just the beginning (and in some cases the end) of a terrifying experience. Adding to their humiliation, the Jews were forced to pay for their own tickets. The proceeds from the sales of what was little more than a death warrant went back to the Deutsche Reichsban. All of this was carried out with breathtaking efficiency.

During the Holocaust in Hungary, on average of two of these trains left each day. This was how hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were taken to meet their doom in southern Poland. The first train left for Auschwitz on April 29, 1944, the last one a little over two months later on July 8th. There was a good chance that the train car I was looking at had played a role in the deportations. There were other similar cars both inside and outside the main workshop. The paint left on the wooden exterior of these had chipped, cracked or faded to a sea foam green. Seeing these cars made me recall the article I had read that mentioned these might have been used in deportations.  None of these cited a source, but sometimes standing so close to the real thing offers a sixth sense of understanding that trumps anything found in a history book. Whatever the case, these cars did not look so quaint or rustic after I realized what might be lurking in their past. Instead, they looked as menacing as everything else associated with the Holocaust.

Sinister Indifference - Abandoned railway car at Istvantelek

Sinister Indifference – Abandoned railway car at Istvantelek

Coming To Terms – A Sinister Indifference
The question might be asked: What is so special about finding an old railroad car that might have been used in the Holocaust? After all, many of the same ones can be found at museums throughout Europe. While that is certainly true, there is something both shocking and sinister when you find such an artifact abandoned and forgotten amid an old industrial site. It is like going into the attic and discovering a terrible family secret that has suffered from years of neglect and casual amnesia. The indifference with which the railroad car had been treated spoke volumes about trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. The fact remains that we never can and probably never will.

Click here for: The Ghostly Terminal – Refusing To Die: Istvantelek (Part Five)



A One Way Ticket To Oblivion – Abandonment: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Three)

“See that glass”, Attila said as he pointed at the ruined roof of Istvantelek Train Yard’s main workshop, “that could slice your head right off.” We were standing outside the workshop looking at the ruined roof. As many of the glass panels were missing as those that remained. The panels had been battered and broken after years of neglect, falling and shattering without anyone there to notice. The roof was a rather ominous warning of the dangers that lay inside the main workshop. I now realized why visitors were hardly ever allowed inside Istvantelek. Even when the rare guided tour was given, the workshop was off limits.

Of course, passion, mystery and intrigue were working in our minds to defeat the inherent dangers of entering an industrial site strewn with a minefield’s worth of hazards. Both Attila and I peered in through an open window to see what ruined treasures stood inside. That was when I noticed a scene that had first caught my eye on the internet. Inside were graffiti covered carriages, too many to count. This was a train enthusiast’s heaven, an urban explorer’s dream. It made my heart skip a beat. I felt the kind of longing usually reserved for a long lost, unrequited love. I wanted to get inside, but how. That was when Attila said, “let’s go in and have a look.”

On the Outside Looking In - Workshop at Istvantelek

On the Outside Looking In – Workshop at Istvantelek

Positively Apocalyptic – A Veil of Grime & Dust
Getting into the main workshop was much easier than getting into the site. There was no guard or anything else to bar entry, only an opening where a door used to be. This opening was slightly obscured by an encroachment of ivy. Such greenery was a strange counterpoint to the rust, ruin and broken glass closing in around it. Upon entering through the open doorway, we were immediately confronted with another world. The scene before us was positively apocalyptic. Everything was in a state of semi-ruin. Locomotives and passenger cars were lined up in a procession that had gone nowhere for decades, a motley assemblage of industrial detritus was scattered about. It was as though we had walked on the set of a zombie film. Any minute I expected to have some otherworldly creature lunging for me. I have never been stalked before, but I cannot imagine a worse place for that to happen.

The entire place looked as though it had been shot to pieces. Shafts of light penetrated through the many openings in the roof.  The railway cars colors looked incredibly vivid, especially those covered with graffiti. There was beauty to be found amid the ugly reality of these cast-offs. The rust and graffiti were powerful artistic counterpoints to one another. One the work of time and neglect, the other created by the mind and hand of man. Everything was cloaked in a veil of grime and dust. And throughout the workshop all that could be heard was an empty silence. The main workshop was the end of the line, the end of an age, the end of history for over one hundred locomotives and railway cars. We were at a station inhabited by ghosts with a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Hazards of the Job - Inside the Main Workshop at Istvantelek

Hazards of the Job – Inside the Main Workshop at Istvantelek

Magnificently Creepy – An Irresistible Invitation
Inside the main workshop we walked down one row after another, between passenger cars that managed to all look different and somehow the same. From time to time, the most eye-catching relics would cause us to pause and ponder how they had arrived at this place. Doors were flung open, offering an ominously irresistible invitation to step inside. And that is just what we did. One carriage was of especial interest after Attila informed me that it was used to deliver the mail. Upon entering we found the mail slots empty except for an inch or two of dust. It had been a post office riding the rails that delivered to small, remote villages. This mail car did not deliver to other postal facilities. Instead, it delivered straight from the car.

The excitement that once accorded the mail car upon its arrival must have been dramatic. This was the traveling messenger of the early 20th century delivering happiness and sorrow in unequal quantities across the Great Hungarian Plain and the hills, mountains and valleys of northern Hungary. To get a letter from this car must have been an event in of itself, rivaled only by the postal car’s appearance. It was an essential connection between Hungarian villages and the larger world. The stories this postal car could tell would have been unbelievable, but just as it was always on the move from one village to the next, so was time and progress, creating a distance from the past that could never quite be recovered.

Mail Call - Inside an old mail car at Istvantelek

Mail Call – Inside an old mail car at Istvantelek

There was also a multitude of empty passenger cars, many of which I recognized from my own travels across Hungary’s railways. Several of these had been festooned with eye popping graffiti. One had the phrase 420 Hurts painted on it just below four windows without a single pane of glass. Hurts was painted in blood red that had slowly crawled down from the letters. The graffiti was redolent of a murder scene and looked more like the work of an urban gang than random vandals. Speaking of vandals, I did not doubt that some of the cars had been vandalized, but this only added to their post- apocalyptic aesthetic. Here was a world that looked as though it had been subjected to a nuclear attack. I could imagine giant cockroaches and lethal alien beings lying in wait for the unsuspecting urban explorer. The fact that much of the railway stock looked familiar made the workshop seem magnificently creepy. For some reason, I had the feeling we were always being watched. Perhaps this fear arose from being surrounded by abandonment.

The Last Time - Oil Change on December 12th 2001

The Last Time – Oil Change on December 12th 2001

A Dark Secret – Lost In Translation
A constant source of curiosity and perplexity for me were the letters and numbers that had been painted, etched or stenciled on so many of the locomotives and cars. These were written in an unintelligible language that I had no idea how to decipher. Attila remarked that a train enthusiast would have a field day with such terminology. They could disseminate the make and model, where and when for each of these relics by translating such coded messages. Attila was able to translate one of these. Written on the side of a badly beaten up wooden railway car was OLAJCSERE. Db.2001.12.11. This meant that an oil change had been done back on December 12th, 2001. We found this particularly amusing since preventive maintenance was not exactly the strong suit of Istvantelek.

Another wooden train car, one that was still sporting much of its red paint, had more ominous terminology stamped on it, among which I immediately noticed the words “Deutsche Reichsban.” This was a reminder of a horrific artifact that was said to still be located at Istvantelek. One that made these abandoned cars suddenly seem menacing. There was a very dark secret said to lurk among these cars, one which is known by a single word, Auschwitz.

Click here for: A Question Without An Answer – The Holocaust In Hungary: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Four)

Heading Nowhere Fast – Budapest’s Railway Ruin: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part One)

Befitting the major transit point for an entire nation, Budapest has three main train stations that take in most points of the compass. There is Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern station), whose frontal approach has just undergone a badly needed upgrade, Nyugati Palyudvar (Western station), a spectacular late 19th century Eiffel creation that has slowly succumbed to eloquent dilapidation and Deli Palyudvar (Southern station), a functionalist concrete concoction that was built to replace the original station which was shot to smithereens in the Battle of Budapest. Each of these stations counterintuitively services various points of the Hungarian compass. For hundreds of thousands each year, they are still the palaces of transport.

Trains originating from Nyugati Palyudvar often go east and those starting at Keleti Palyudvar head west. The most notable instance of this twisted logic occurs when trains head west to Vienna from Keleti. While such turns of the tracks have perplexed me on occasion, another question regarding the train stations of Budapest looms much larger in my mind. Specifically, why is there no northern station (Eszak Palyudvar) in the city? After all, if you have east, west and south stations then why not have a north one as well. I have heard various explanations, the most convincing of which is that all the other stations cover potential destinations. Also, the fact that the area north of Budapest is quite mountainous, with rugged terrain and comparatively few populated places would have made a railway station servicing it a needless waste of money.

Rustic Charm - Istvantelek Train Yard

Rustic Charm – Istvantelek Train Yard

The Last Joyride – A Train Trip Back In Time
The fact that there is no northern station in Budapest does not mean that railways have avoided this part of the city. On the contrary, many of the great treasures of Hungarian railway history can be found in the area at two places. The first one is Vasuttorteneti Park (Hungarian Railway Museum), which attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year. Visitors come to look at an amazing array of old locomotives and railway carriages that evoke the increasingly distant golden era of railway travel in Hungary. The other area filled with railway treasures bumps up against the Vasuttorteneti property, but hardly anyone is aware of it. This is the now defunct Istvantelek Train Yard, also known by its colloquial name as the Red Star Train Yard.

Istvantelek is off limits to tourists, but not to wily urban explorers who are willing to chance a visit. Many railway enthusiasts are aware of the rusting treasures to be found throughout the train yard. It has everything from hulking locomotives emblazoned with the communist red star to pre-World War I monsters that stand in silent, stolid testimony to the engineering achievements of a lost industrial age. A visit to Istvantelek is difficult, but not impossible. My Hungarian brother-in-law Attila, set out with me on a brisk winter’s day in January to see if we could get inside and take a look at some incredible railroad history.

A Living Museum - Istvantelek Train Yard

A Living Museum – Istvantelek Train Yard

Controlled Access – A Not So Grand Entrance
Access to the site was somewhat controlled, but Istvantelek was not heavily guarded. Research on the internet showed that the train yard could be accessed one of two ways. Either by sneaking into the train yard or asking for access from someone manning a lightly guarded main gate. The latter method seemed more promising if it was done on a Sunday. That’s because Istvantelek is still home to several small industrial concerns that have handfuls of staff working there on weekdays. On Saturdays and Sundays the site was said to be mostly abandoned, offering the most opportune time for a visit. The fewer people around, the better the odds of having a look. Attila was up for the adventure as well. He contacted a friend of his who had a bit of knowledge about the site. They planned to go with us, but other commitments forced them to back out at the last moment. From what we were able to learn, it was likely that we would have to find a hole in the fence or scale a wall in order to get inside. I did not enjoy the thought of climbing over a wall, especially when I first saw what would face us.

As we drove around the streets surrounding the train yard, I was unable to see much inside. That was because a cement wall, at least six feet high topped with three strands of rusty barbed wire, surrounded much of the perimeter. Thoughts of trying to straddle the wall while tangled up in barbed wire came to mind. We were a couple of guys in our late 40’s who were decently fit, but not exactly in prime shape. Climbing walls and suffering barbed wire wounds was not exactly an appealing idea. Fortunately, while driving around the perimeter we began to see some chain link fencing that looked more easily scalable, including one area with a gaping hole in it. The fence could be overcome, but perhaps there was a more promising option.

Lasting Presence - Abandoned Locomotive at Istvantelek Train Yard

Lasting Presence – Abandoned Locomotive at Istvantelek Train Yard

Twenty Nos & One Yes – A Ticket To Ride
We were finally able to find an entrance to the site with a guardhouse and gate. The gate was up, but the guardhouse was manned. We pulled up to the guardhouse where a man of medium height and build with graying hair and soft eyes greeted us. Attila decided to get out of the car and talk with him. I stayed in the vehicle, trying to look as disinterested as possible. The guard’s voice always maintained a level tone and there was very little discernible emotion on his face. He seemed to be relaxed. This was a good sign. It has been my experience in Eastern Europe that if you are to be told no, a negative answer is almost always immediately forthcoming. In this case, I was cautiously optimistic, but a bit unsure as their conversation lasted several minutes. When Attila returned to the car, he started the engine and said, “after about twenty nos I finally got a yes. The man said we could look around, but not to linger for too long.” I was elated. We were in.

Click here for: The Rustbin of History – Where A Red Star Still Shines: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Two)


Jozsef Katona of Kecskemet – A Tragedy Followed By Triumph (For The Love of Hungary Part 46)

Visiting a new place in provincial Hungary always seems to bring me into contact with historical personages that I knew nothing about prior to my arrival. Names such as Erkel, Jokai, Kodaly, Balissi and Dobo have become familiar to me because I have visited a city or village where their exploits loom large. Many of these men have statues in Budapest and a prominent place in the national psyche, but their legacies are most alive at the places where they came of age. These are usually hometowns or places that played host to their greatest achievements. A provincial city needs it heroes much more than a nation’s capital. Local heroes offer hope, a sense of pride and a shared connection to the local citizenry. Smaller cities, towns and villages are always proud to extol the virtues of one of their own. Homegrown talent that made a name for themselves and at the same time brought a bit of fame to their hometown.

A Call For Justice - Jozsef Katona

A Call For Justice – Jozsef Katona (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

The Famously Anonymous – Provincial Hungarian Heroes
Anytime someone says I am an expert on Hungary a sense of irritation sweeps over me. Knowing the ins, outs and nuances of an entire country is an impossible learning curve. My attempts to master Hungary always falter when I visit a new city or town. That is when I am suddenly standing face to face with a famous historical personage who is anonymous to me. This happens to be someone famous who is immortalized in sculpture or statuary, whose name is etched on a plinth or plaque. These personages are almost always “local” men. I use “local” with quotation marks because many of those deified in provincial cities and towns happen to be national heroes. The proverbial local boy who was better than good, they were great. Those whose deeds far exceeded the modest cities and towns they sprang from. This was the case in Kecskemet, where I was confronted with the life, death and legacy of Jozsef Katona. Katona’s legacy makes an unforgettable appearance in the city center.

It was difficult not to notice the references in Kecskemet to Katona. A few hundred meters from the railway station was the Jozsef Katona Museum which stands in Jozsef Katona Park. The city’s lavishly ornate neo-Baroque theater is named after Katona. The ultimate and heartbreakingly tragic tribute to the man comes with a memorial stone located a stone’s throw from the Kecskemet City Hall. A flower bed located in front of the building holds a split block of stone. The monument’s sad poignancy is expressed in the fact that it records the exact spot where Katona succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 39. The stone is meant to symbolize Katona’s broken heart. During his lifetime, Katona was not given proper appreciation for Bank Ban. A play that still dominates Hungarian drama today.

Strokes of Genius - Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

Strokes of Genius – Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

For King Or Country – A Contentious Relationship
Jozsef Katona’s life did not make him an obvious candidate for great renown. He was born in 1791 in Kecskemet, the son of a weaver who lived modestly. During his youth, Katona was often ill, but was blessed with a brilliant intellect. He excelled in his studies at a local Roman Catholic school. At the age of eleven his parents took him to study in Pest. He lasted only a year before returning home mainly due to illness. Katona would regain his academic equilibrium during the ensuing years, eventually matriculating to school in Szeged before returning to Pest. He excelled in philosophy and judicial studies leading him towards a career as an attorney. This made him little different from other upwardly mobile Hungarian men who used their intelligence to advance their position in life. What made Katona different was his passion for drama. He had an artistic side that expressed itself with dramatic intent.

While studying and later practicing law, Katona became increasingly involved in Pest’s theatrical scene. He acted in many plays and during a five-year period wrote or reconfigured twenty-two different dramas. During this time Katona submitted his original work, Bank Ban, in a competition held by the Transylvanian Museum in Kolozsvar (present day Cluj, Romania) for a play to be performed at the opening of a National Theater in the city. The play was rooted in medieval Hungarian history. The central character, Bank, is acting on behalf of King Andrew II (1205-1235) while the king is away fighting in a foreign campaign. Unfortunately, Bank gets himself involved in a nefarious plot to murder the king’s German born wife, Queen Gertrude. He first tries to stop the rebellious plot, but then ends up killing the queen. Bank is forced to wrestle with the question of personal and professional loyalties. The moral quandary he finds himself in regarding his duties is fascinating.

The play touched on contemporary issues concerning the Hungarian’s contentious relationship with their foreign overlords, the Austrian Habsburgs. This would have made the play a lightning rod for controversy if it had been selected as one of the top entries. Instead the committee judging the play did not mention it at all. This may have been because it drew uneasy parallels between past and present attitudes to foreign rulers. Katona revised the play and published it four years later to no avail. It was only several years after his death that it finally received acclaim. Bank Ban soared in popularity to the point that on the first day of the Hungarian Revolution on March 15, 1848 the play was performed at the National Theater. It was later made into an opera by the composer Ferenc Erkel. That rendition of Bank Ban has proved wildly popular with Hungarians ever since. The play is a touchstone of Hungarian drama. As for Katona, he died in 1830 long before his play became famous.

Remember Me When I'm Gone - Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet

Remember Me When I’m Gone – Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet (Credit: Mister No)

A Dramatic Legacy – Speaking Across The Ages
The legacy of Jozsef Katona is paradoxical. He was a successful attorney whose talent as a dramatist was not discovered until many years after his death. While Katona toiled in theatrical obscurity, he was able to create one of the great Hungarian dramas of all time. Katona may never have achieved the fame and notoriety he deserved, but Bank Ban’s meaning and message has lasted well beyond his life. All any artist can ask for is that their work speaks across the ages to universal experiences that everyone has in common. Allowing each observer to see something of themselves in the work. They might then come to understand the world in which they live much better. Bank Ban has managed to do this for each new generation of Hungarians. It might be said that Jozsef Katona knew his people better than they knew themselves. It is also true that they hardly knew him at all.