The Power To Melt Hearts – Wenckheim Palace: An Empty Dress (Part Five)

Approaching Wenckheim Palace on a mid-December day brought with it a strange feeling. Due to the time of year, it felt like we were the only ones around. As far as visitors went that was true. The parking lot adjacent to the palace looked like a wider extension of the driveway, it was nearly empty except for automobiles owned by the handful of employees who worked here. The lack of people gave our arrival a more intimate, personal touch. For me, it felt like we were coming for visit as old friends of the family, but there was no family to be found. I did not have to read a history book to imagine what had happened to the last Wenckheim’s to inhabit this palace. They would have been swept away, like so much else by the Red Army’s arrival in the autumn of 1944. I doubted any aristocrats stayed around to suffer the dire consequences that would have been forthcoming after being labeled class enemies on the spot. This would have likely meant execution or a fate even worse than death. The palace survived though. A lasting reminder of the lavish life that the Wenckheims, as well as many other aristocratic families throughout Hungary, led in the years before two World Wars consumed the countryside.

A Feat of Imagination - Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod

A feat of imagination – Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod (Credit: Mihaly Rakasz)

Metaphorical Messages – Redefining The Idea Of A Palace
Wenckheim Palace was a mystery to me and would remain so during my visit. There was very little literature or information panels in English. For that matter, there was not that much more written in Hungarian. The bookstore/sales area was bare bones. The entrance fee was nominal. It was rather obvious to me that Wenckheim Palace was badly in need of a budget and professional staff. The tours were self-guided by default. Everyone who worked here, either seemed preoccupied or bored. I was happy to learn that the palace had won a large grant from the European Union to restore much of the palace to its former glory. The work was slated to begin in a few more months. Until then, visitors were pretty much on their own. My wife and mother-in-law, both native Hungarian speakers, were not able to offer much in the way of interpretation either.

Learning about Wenckheim Palace would require some good old-fashioned detective work. This meant taking a closer look at the few details I could discern. My investigative work started with the latter half of its name. Calling it a palace, on the order of a Versailles or the Hofburg, did not quite do the building justice. Wenckheim was as much manor house as palace. There was even a tower, recalling what might have been a castle. I stared at its eclectically styled, neo-renaissance exterior without taking the time to enumerate the number of windows. If I had, the count would have come to 365, same as the number of days in a year. Inside the symmetry continued with 52 rooms, matching the number of weeks in a year. A final callback to the calendar related to the palace’s four entrances, corresponding with the number of seasons. Distracted by the palace’s architectural eclecticism, it was hard to notice such metaphorical messages.

Portal to another world - Wenckheim Palace

Portal to another world – Wenckheim Palace

A Feat Of Imagination – The Rural Residence Par Excellence
The palace had been designed to such symmetrical specifications on the orders of Krisztina Wenckheim, one half the aristocratic couple who commissioned the palace’s design and construction. It was built from 1875 – 1879. The architect was none other Miklos Ybl, a man who had studied and soaked up the architectural atmosphere in Vienna and Munich. He brought new ideas back to his native Hungary where he worked exclusively during the latter half of the 19th century. He would soon become the most in demand architect during Hungary’s golden age which followed the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. As Budapest boomed, following its unification as a single city in 1873, so did Ybl’s career. Many of Ybl’s most famous works date from this time. These include the Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Varkert (Castle Garden Bazaar). His creative instincts were not confined to the capital, as he took his talents far afield into the far-flung provincial areas of Hungary.

This brought Ybl to rural locales where he achieved incredible feats of the imagination amid landscapes that had been previously known for agriculture rather than architecture. Wenckheim Palace would help change the rural idyll. Ybl’s services were coveted by all the major aristocratic families at the time. Only a few were able to command his attention. The Wenckheim’s had the money, power and prestige to purchase Ybl’s services to design a palace on the southern Great Plain. He did not disappoint his patrons with the Wenckheim Palace. It was a rural aristocratic residence par excellence. His fantastical creation was a regional icon where the uber-wealthy rural gentry gathered for grand balls and all-night parties filled with shimmering glitz and moonlit romance. These glory days have all but faded. I viewed the palace as just the scaffolding of what was once a grand social and cultural edifice.

An empty dress - Wenckheim Palace

An empty dress – Wenckheim Palace

An Indelible Impression – The Passion & Pathos Of Love
The current state of the palace could not have been much farther removed from the golden age. Walking through the large rooms it was apparent that the décor was not indigenous to the site. Period pieces of furniture had been placed in the rooms as much to occupy space as portray any sense of elegance. I assumed all the originals had been stolen during the Second World War. The presentation of such areas as the dining room, men’s and women’s salons and bedrooms were well done, but lacking in the prevailing haute bourgeoise spirit of that gilded age. There was one bedroom that did manage to leave me with a lasting impression. Laid out on a bed was a woman’s dress. Looking as though its owner had left it there as a ghostly reminder of a consummated romance. I imagined the dress’s former occupant as an alluringly voluptuous figure. For a moment, I could sense the passion and pathos of love that had once pervaded these chambers. Such romantic notions had long since vanished from this bedroom, but the tiny hint of them that remained was still powerful enough to melt hearts.

Click here for: An Anachronism In Action – Wenckheim Palace: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Experience

Time Ticking Backwards – Getting A Taste of Old Gyula: The Way To Wenckheim (Part Four)

Gyula Castle had been worth the trip, but it was not the only attraction to be found in this small, compact city. Close to the castle was another historical site, the Almasy Mansion. On the drive to Gyula, my mother-in-law had mentioned a palace she had recently visited in the nearby countryside. I was a bit confused by this because none of my guidebooks mentioned any manor houses or palaces worthy of a visit in the area around Gyula. At first, I assumed she meant the Almasy Mansion, which was just a few hundred meters from the castle. My assumption turned out to be wrong.

I discerned from her smattering of English mixed with Hungarian that this was not the mansion she had been referring to. She kept saying the name Wenckheim, which meant little to me other than I had heard it mentioned before as Hungarian aristocratic surname. This bit of knowledge did little to alleviate my confusion, but it did add an element of mystery. I wondered if she might have something confused. Then I reminded myself that this was a woman who had spent her entire career working as head of a research library at one of Hungary’s most prestigious universities. Something was getting lost in the translation between us. Before the afternoon was over, I would discover what she had been trying to tell me.

Grounds for tragedy - Almasy Mansion in Gyula

Grounds for tragedy – Almasy Mansion in Gyula (Credit: Szalax)

Tragedy & Ecstasy – Deadly & Delicious Bits of History
The cool, crispness of winter had descended on Gyula. A gust of wind was enough to send us into shivers such was the pervasive chill in the air. There was limited daylight left on this mid-December day, thus we decided to skip a visit to the nearby Almasy Mansion. In retrospect, that decision was a mistake. We skirted the grounds of that immaculate mansion on the way back to our car. Later I would learn of the tragic history that had occurred here. The mansion had been the setting for one of those terrible episodes that crop up in Hungarian history with alarming frequency. In August of 1849, at the tail end of the Hungarian Revolution, ten Hungarian generals had surrendered on the mansion’s grounds. They had little idea of what was in store for them. Less than six months later these generals put to death by the Austrian authorities. They, along with three other generals executed at the same time, would become known to history as the 13 Martyrs of Arad (the city in which their execution took place). This incident is one of the tragic touchstones of Hungarian history. Getting to know it better would have to wait for another day. Instead, we set off to get a taste, quite literally, of old Gyula.

The Way It Was - Szazeves Cuksraszda in Gyula

The Way It Was – Szazeves Cuksraszda in Gyula

Gyula is most famous for two attractions. One of course is its castle. The other is Szazeves Cukraszda, which in translation means “the one hundred year old patisserie”. It is purportedly the second oldest patisserie in all of Hungary. The name is something of a misnomer, since Szazeves was started much longer than a hundred years ago. The patisserie opened in 1840 and since that time, despite multiple revolutions, two world wars and the imposition of ideologically extreme governments, Szazeves has managed to both survive and thrive. It is one of the most famous patisseries in the country and rightfully so. In addition to delicious coffee and a full range of mouthwatering deserts, it is also home to 19th century period furnishings which are more than museum set pieces, they are used by customers. This provides a magical environment in which customers can step back in time to experience the look and feel of Cukraszda culture at its height. This was one of the great gifts that the ruling Austrians bequeathed to Hungary at the outset of the early modern period and running right up through today. Szazeves Cukraszda is a striking example of this phenomenon.

Bourgeois At Its Best -– A Feeling Of Quaint Formality
As soon as we entered, time ticked backwards over a hundred years. It was hard not to feel a bit out of place because everything inside Szazeves looked or felt like it had come from Hungary’s pre-World War I golden age. The servers wore period outfits. For us, suits and dresses would have been more appropriate, such was the style and elegance on display. The place had a feel of quaint formality that has been all but lost in mass, technologically driven societies. The atmosphere in Szazeves was splendid, we were surrounded by what was the height of bourgeois society. While sipping a hot white chocolate I could sense for just a moment that sense of noble social refinement that was pervasive in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Szazeves may have been in a small provincial city, but the empire style décor and Biedermeier furniture made it seem much grander, as though we were in Vienna rather than Gyula. Perhaps that was the real value of Szazeves, it allowed for the re-creation of an era that has been lost to history. Plus, the desserts were delicious.

A fantastical reality - Wenckheim Palace in the late 19th century

A fantastical reality – Wenckheim Palace in the late 19th century

After filling our bellies full of delightfully delicious desserts and copious amounts of hot chocolate, we drove back out of Gyula. My mother-in-law now directed us. Our route at first followed the one we had taken into town, but at an intersection we made a left rather than right turn. Gyula quickly vanished from view and we were soon out in the countryside. The road was bumpy and not very well maintained. I could not imagine there would be anything to see out here, let alone a palace. The roadside was lined with trees and brush. Beyond that were turned up fields that lay fallow. There was nothing memorable about this landscape. The only excitement was caused by the constant jolts our car received from the road. After a few minutes we came to a small village, Szabadkigyos, which was tidy but unimpressive. We then turned down a slim street which led to a more wooded area. A large mansion painted in a vibrant shade of ochre beamed brightly in the afternoon sunlight. It was a brilliant symmetry of gables and spires, towers and turrets, verandas and weathervanes. This was Wenckheim Palace.

Click here for: The Power To Melt Hearts – Wenckheim Palace: An Empty Dress (Part Five)


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 Lost World Lurking On A Lower Shelf – A Transylvanian Trilogy At Bestsellers: Budapest Bookstores (Part Two)

Forints (Hungary’s currency) started flying from my wallet the moment I began perusing the shelves and stacks at Bestsellers. I scooped up a copy of Sandor Marai’s Embers, a book I would come to dearly love. I have read this same copy twice. There were also a couple of books on Budapest and Hungary by British authors that I had never seen anywhere else and thus had to purchase. One was by Bob Dent, who moved to Budapest a few decades ago. He wrote a fusion of journalism, travel and history. His Every Statue Tells A Story on the statues, sculptures and monuments of Budapest has become one of my most beloved books. This was the first of multiple purchases through the years of Dent’s books at Bestsellers.

Another memorable find was A Country Full of Aliens by Colin Swatridge, a tale of what he learned about modern Hungarian life, culture and idiosyncrasies while teaching in Hungary. Swatridge’s perspective was so revealing that I have recommended it multiple times to anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the country. Many of the cultural nuances Swatridge discusses at length in the book I would later discover to be spot on. The store was also where I first found and fell in love with Bradt Travel Guides, which along with the Rough Guide series, I have found to be the most indispensable guidebooks. Bradt has without a doubt the most extensive guidebook coverage of Eastern European nations. Guidebooks specifically dedicated to overlooked places from Belarus to Bosnia, Macedonia to Montenegro and a personal favorite, a guide dedicated to travel in Transylvania. These were the type of hard to find, but easy to read and highly informative books that soon made Bestsellers one of my all-time favorite bookstores.

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy (Credit: Arcadia Press reissue covers)

Cracking Open A Whole New World – Fictional Non-Fictions
My most evocative memory of Bestsellers has nothing to do with leather armchairs or the smell of freshly unpacked books or the arrival of a new daily edition of the International Herald Tribune, though I must admit that each of these added immeasurably to my experience. The atmospherics on offer at Bestsellers have always been aesthetically pleasing, but they were no match for a serendipitous discovery I made on a lower set of shelves that held the English translations of Hungarian literature. This was where I found a set of books that I now believe had been waiting on me my entire life. Bestsellers was the first place I ever came across Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy. The mention of Transylvania in the title made me pull out the books and begin browsing their contents.

I was intrigued by their austere titles, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided. These titles were direct to the point of tragic. They had a predictive quality that spoke of stormy relationships in a lost world. The kind of lost world that could be recreated by an author who knew it intimately. Banffy was Hungarian, but he was also a Transylvanian and above all else, a humanist. The books may have been fiction, but from the back blurbs they sounded just as historical as any history book. Their sizable proportions did nothing to hinder my interest. What I would later discover was that the Transylvania Trilogy was a sort of Hungarian version War and Peace with Remembrance of Things Past thrown in for good measure

They Were Found Wanting – The Power Of Less Than Happy Ending
I knew next to nothing about Banffy, but this attracted rather than repelled me. The titles were the initial hint that there was romance in these books that would not end well, but how many romances ever do end well. Happy endings are for Hollywood movies and Harlequin romances, not novels born from the dark forests and epic mountain landscapes of Transylvania. I felt an intense urge to read all three books cover to cover as soon as I picked them up. And that is what I would do, but not right away. I surprised myself by waiting to purchase the Transylvania Trilogy. I did not want to lug the entire set around with me for a couple of weeks. Instead, I would wait until I got back home, then order them online.

Banffy’s books followed me all the way back home to Montana. Over several months I read the trilogy ever so slowly. And my first impression of this trio of volumes would turn out to be true, here was a lost world of romance and aristocracy, a Hungarian Kingdom that no longer existed except for each time I cracked open the trilogy. This was the beginning of a journey into pre-World War I Transylvania that would eventually drive me to go there and chase down the ghosts of an unrecoverable past. A past that I was able to glimpse in all its shimmering, shattered glory. A past that first came to me on a lower shelf at Bestsellers. That has kept me coming back to Bestsellers more times than I can possibly count.

Return Engagements – Shelf Life
The reasons I keep returning to Bestseller are twofold. The first is obvious, the great books on offer. Ones that I am unlikely to find anywhere else, shelved together side by side in neat rows. The sections on Eastern European affairs and associated nations is unparalleled. The second reason I return, is in the hopes of finding a lost world lurking on some lower shelf. Each time I revisit Bestsellers, one of my first stops is the section of English translations of Hungarian literature. I always pick up the same editions, with the same covers of the Transylvania Trilogy.

Then I begin to thumb through one of the volumes. I want to go back to that initial visit. A time when I knew nothing more than the word Transylvania, with its connotations of clifftop castles, a deathly aristocratic count by the name of Dracula and dreadful discoveries to come. This stereotype led me to select The Transylvania Trilogy. I have never regretted for a moment that impulse. And it would not have happened without that remarkable bookstore which made it all possible.

Click here for: Objects Of Intense Desire – Entering The Comfort Zone (Budapest Bookstores Part One)

Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

His power to evoke passion was legendary. He could send women swooning just by running his fingers across the ivory keys of a piano. The world fell to its feet in the presence of his musical powers. He created, composed and conjured entirely new worlds of sound from multitudes of magnificent keystrokes. Females were especially prone to his mysterious musical powers. Because of this, he fell in and out of romance. In even greater numbers, he fell in and out of bed. Fathering any number of children with true loves and midnight mistresses. Because of his reputation for romances, both sweeping and fleeting, it is hard to imagine the Hungarian musical impresario, Franz Liszt, ever settling down in marriage. He never quite did, but he was willing to try. When the opportunity arose to marry a countess, Liszt was more than willing to oblige.

Franz Liszt - The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Franz Liszt – The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Reverence, Rudeness & Respect – Prestigious Possibility
Among the many personality traits of Franz Liszt, one of the more pronounced was his snobbery. Like most snobs, the one thing he could never stomach was others who thought they were better than him. There is nothing a snob abhors more than another snob. Liszt could not stand to be looked down upon due to the simple fact that he himself looked down on the world. His musical ability gave him an exalted position both socially and culturally. For Liszt, it was normal to be treated with the utmost adoration. This was not so much a privilege, as it was his right. Thus, if anyone in the aristocracy or royalty (the elite classes of Europe during the 19th century) did not show him the proper respect, Liszt would reciprocate with rudeness. Conversely, when treated with the proper reverence, Liszt could be gracious, humble and kind. One of Liszt’s great ambitions in life was to climb the social ladder. His musical talent opened the world of aristocracy up to him. He most often played for audiences filled with the finest aristocrats in Europe. During his concert tours he met large numbers of princes and princesses. It was the latter that offered him not only the romance he craved, but also the prestigious possibility of marriage into high society.

On a concert tour in 1847 Liszt met the Polish noblewoman Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein while performing in Kiev. The Countess lived in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire. Her wealth was beyond belief. She owned multiple estates with thousands of serfs working the land. The Countess was something of a paradox. She enjoyed elite social status while at the same time being fanatically religious. The Countess wrote long winded books on religious subjects. Her literary output was lengthy in the extreme, with works that would put War and Peace to shame for their sheer volume of words. Such traits attracted Liszt to her. The Countess’ religious fervor was matched by his own. While the Countess’ social standing appealed to Liszt’s snobbishness. The Countess though, was much more to Liszt than just one of his many mistresses. He would eventually become an abbe (Catholic clergyman) in the Catholic Church. Their kindred religious spirits led to an unlikely romance between the two. By all accounts the Countess was unattractive, homely and serious minded. A sort of uber wealthy plain jane of Russian Ukraine. Liszt hardly cared because of her aristocratic background. There was only one problem, the Countess was married.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 - The year she met Liszt

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 – The year she met Liszt

Life With Liszt – A High Price To Pay
The Countess’ husband was a Russian military officer who went by the exquisite name of Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg. They had one child, a daughter, but the couple were soon living apart. It was a marriage for the sake of titles, prestige and wealth. Love was not a consideration. The Countess spent years trying to get a divorce from Prince Nikolaus. She began living with Liszt in Weimar a year after they met. After two face-to-face meetings with the pope, she nearly succeeded. On October 22, 1861, the Countess and Liszt were due to be married in Rome. Liszt arrived the night before the wedding fully expecting to get married for the first time. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on his 50th birthday. It would never happen. Intervention by The Countess’ husband and the Russian Tsar stopped the marriage. The Russian government had impounded her estates.

If the Countess had gone through with the marriage, she would have lost a fortune. Her lone child, a daughter by Prince Nikolaus, would have had her marriage prospects irreparably damaged. Thus, the marriage failed. The Countess and Liszt eventually grew apart. She was disgusted by his numerous affairs. He was an inveterate womanizer who took the Countess’ love for granted. She eventually grew fed up and moved to Rome. What Liszt was doing with the Countess says much more about him than it does her. Liszt longed for adulation, an aristocratic title would have been another stepping stone to greater prestige. It never happened, but it did not stop him from trying. For the Countess, Liszt was like a dream that was slowly defeated by reality. The Countess was unique though. Her religious fervor knew no bounds. She was loyal to Liszt and that loyalty came at an astronomical price. She squandered much of her riches for the pursuit of passion and a spiritual kinship.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Romance & Religion – Kindred Spirits
In the end, a life together for Liszt and the Countess was not meant to be. After the attempt at marriage failed, the Countess became just another woman for Liszt in an unending succession of them. A few he loved, most he did not. The love that had existed between the two of them faded. In her post-Liszt life, the Countess spent years writing religious tomes. Her magnum opus was a 24-volume work, Exterior Causes of the Interior Weakness of the Church. Not exactly a page turner. It had the added drawback that on average each volume was over a thousand pages in length. No one remembers these books. For that matter, no one remembers the Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein except for the romance and religion she shared with the famous Franz Liszt.

Click here for: A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The Perseverance of Preservation- Endre Csatkai: A Savior For Sopron

I came into Sopron expecting magnificence, I was not to be disappointed. For a city that suffered multiple aerial bombings during the Second World War, Sopron had done an excellent job of putting itself back together with considerable attention to historical detail. Innumerable Baroque buildings lined the streets of the city’s Old Town. There were also vestiges of Renaissance and Medieval era architecture to be found. While getting to the bottom of Sopron’s structural history meant coming to terms with the legacy of ancient Rome. Undergirding its cobblestone streets were the foundations of Sopron’s Roman predecessor, Scarbantia. The Roman city walls could still be seen in several places and Sopron’s main square (Fo ter) was built atop the site of the old Roman forum. In short, Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner City) was consumed by the past. I have rarely visited a place that felt so historical.

The Preservationist - Endre Csatkai

The Preservationist – Endre Csatkai

Selfless Gifts-  A Life’s Work
A showpiece of preservation, the Old Town had been marked by a fate more fortunate than that of almost any other Hungarian city. Perhaps it was destiny or chance, but old Sopron had been left largely intact. The Mongols never quite made it this far and the Ottoman Turks’ stay was surprisingly short. World War II did some damage, but occupation came at the tail of the war. By that point, the worst of the fighting was over. Habsburgs and Hungarians had been the city’s main historical influencers. Sopron shows that a lot of luck can go a long way in preserving an old cityscape. Yet preservation is not something that just happens by chance, it is also based on attitude, ethics and beliefs, all human qualities.

Every city should have as great a preservationist as Sopron did during the 20th century. I discovered this person’s name in the pages of an old guidebook. A passing reference was made in a single sentence to a man who had spent a half century of his life working to tell the story of Sopron and working to preserve its architectural wonders. In the process, he bequeathed a selfless gift to future generations of visitors who would come to revere his legacy, even if they did not know much, if anything, about him. That man was a Hungarian art historian by the name of Endre Csatkai. Sopron was more than a place to Csatkai, it was his passion.

Monumental - One of Endre Csatkai's many books on Sopron

Monumental – One of Endre Csatkai’s many books on Sopron

Self-Education – The Thirst For Knowledge
Endre Csatkai was born in the village of Darufalva in the late 19th century. At that time Darufalva was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, later it would become part of Austria. The village was just a handful of kilometers northwest of Sopron, the city where Csatkai would come to know more intimately than perhaps any of its citizens. He graduated from high school there in 1914. This was the same year that Hungary entered a cataclysmic period in its history with the beginning of World War I. Csatkai was also entering a very difficult time in his life. Due to lung disease he was hospitalized for long periods of time. This kept him away from the battlefront and delayed his studies at the university level. His illness became a blessing in disguise. It afforded him an opportunity for self-education. With considerable time on his hands, he set about satisfying an insatiable thirst for knowledge. When he finally recovered his health, Csatkai completed his doctorate.

Csatkai was a man of many diverse occupations. His professions reflected his interests. He taught, worked in a museum, edited a popular Hungarian art magazine, wrote reference works about a wide array of subjects and curated exhibitions on such famous musicians as Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt. For many years, Csatkai worked in Eisenstadt, Austria which Hungarians referred to as Kismarton. His Jewish ethnicity and the rise of Nazism threatened to derail his career. Following the Anschluss, whereby Nazi Germany annexed Austria, he was forced to flee back to Sopron. The tentacles of fascism were long and reached beyond borders. The German occupation of Hungary in 1944 meant that Csatkai could be arrested or deported at any moment. Despite attempts by powerful members of the Sopron community to protect him from the anti-Jewish laws which were being swiftly implemented, Csatkai was not exempted from discriminatory measures. He became a forced laborer, which left him emaciated and disease ridden. These harsh conditions nearly cost him his life. He was barely able to survive the war.

Old Sopron - Standing The Test of Time

Old Sopron – Standing The Test of Time (Credit: Tamas Konok)

The Afterlife – From Resurrection to Reconstruction
Incredibly Csatkai’s enthusiasm for Sopron’s history, art and architecture never waned despite his wartime sufferings. He did not immigrate abroad like so many other Hungarian Jews in the postwar years. Instead he stayed in Sopron, spearheading the effort to reopen the city museum which had been left ruined by the war. At the same time, he continued to publish many articles on the art history of Sopron. By the end of his long life, he had authored over a thousand articles. They offered a wealth of invaluable detail about a range of subjects, including the monuments, fine art objects and architecture of Sopron from the 17th through 19th century. These were the building blocks of knowledge that helped reconstruct the city. Without Csatkai, Sopron’s historic preservation efforts might have faltered.

Csatkai’s cultivation of knowledge helped restore the Old Town to its former magnificence. It is hard to imagine just how much capacity for knowledge he had when it came to Sopron. His literary output was vast, eclectic and voluminous. Among his many works there were books on the history of Sopron’s Music Association, the Production of Fireworks and Fire Extinguishers in Sopron, Sopron’s Soaps and Candlesticks along with more mainstream works on Liszt and the Hungarian nationalist poet, Sandor Petofi.  If it concerned Sopron, then Csatkai found it worth researching, studying and writing about. It is not a stretch to say that Endre Csatkai was Sopron and Sopron was Endre Csatkai, each a reflection of the other. For Csatkai, cataloging and cultivating the history of Sopron was a selfless act of self-actualization. And besides self-satisfaction, it was not so much what Csatkai got for his efforts, as what he gave to future generations, helping to create an ethos that informs continuing preservation efforts in the city. Csatkai’s work has stood the test of time, just like the city he so dearly loved.

Click here for: Versailles Off The Beaten Path – Traveling To Easterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

Versailles Off The Beaten Path –  Traveling To Esterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

A Story of Surprises- James Joyce & Szombathely: Walking Through Walls

Two things surprised me in Szombathely, both of which were people. After my arrival on a noon time train from Sarvar, I exited the elegant turn of the 20th century station which was an inspired confection from the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The station was coated in a rich tone of vanilla, topped by a couple of turrets above a grand entrance way. Beyond the station I was stopped by my own confusion. I had no idea which way to walk in order to find the town center. I thumbed through my guidebook until I found the map of Szombathely which I used to get my bearings. With my focus on the map rather than the immediate surroundings, I was suddenly startled by a person who seemed to have come out of nowhere. A woman inserted her head just above my arm, looked at the map and said, “Can I help you?” Her dark eyes betrayed someone with less than noble intentions. Standing behind her was a man whose height was just above the level of a dwarf. Shaken by this intrusion I firmly stated, “No!” I closed the book and began walking in what I believed was the general direction of the city center. The man and woman followed closely behind me for the next five minutes, but my brisk pace and no-nonsense manner made them give up the chase. When I finally stopped to catch my breath, they were nowhere to be seen.

A High Opinion - Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

A High Opinion – Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

Making The Most Of It – Striking A Pose
First impressions can mean everything. The fact that I had been approached by strangers in Szombathely, with what I assumed to be ill intent, colored my initial impression of the city. It was hard for me to shake this feeling as I walked into the city center. The main square (Fo ter) went some way in ameliorating my concern. The uniquely shaped triangular square was expansive and spacious, a partly successful attempt at the spectacular. This square was out of all proportion to most of Szombathely, which was just a small provincial city on the western frontiers of Hungary. It was obvious that the residents of Szombathely had a high opinion of their city and wanted visitors to feel the same. The baroque, classicist and eclectically styled houses were covered with a diverse array of brightly painted facades beaming radiant in the early afternoon sunlight. My mood was becoming as bright as the sunny disposition of Szombathely’s core.

Then, as before, I was surprised once again by a person, but this one was not alive, at least not in the living and breathing sense. A figure from the world of literature who had long since been dead confronted me at 40/41 Fo ter. This was the Irish writer James Joyce, who was in the process of walking halfway through a wall. He had been improbably brought back to life in statuesque form as the ultimate wallflower. Joyce was resting his right hand on a walking stick while wearing his trademark spectacles and wide brimmed hat. His mustache was properly groomed, coat and tie in proper order. Joyce’s face managed an expression of both seriousness and sadness, while the statue was as notable for its portrayal of Joyce as his pose. Walking through a wall is an expression of magical powers, an unexplainable and incomprehensible phenomenon. Perhaps this was a nod to Joyce’s writing, which is praised by critics and unintelligible to the average person.  I have no idea if that was what the sculptor of this Joyce statue intended, but that was my own personal interpretation.

Ulysses in Hungary - James Joyce in Szombathely

Ulysses in Hungary – James Joyce in Szombathely

Back Story – The Search For Deeper Meaning
This search for deeper meaning did not answer my main question regarding the statue. What was a likeness of James Joyce doing in Szombathely in the first place? From what I discovered through research, Joyce had never visited the city, but was nonetheless aware of it. One of the central characters in his stream of consciousness novel Ulysses happens to be from Szombathely. The character is Rudolf Virag, father of Leopold Bloom the novel’s central character. According to the narrative, Virag, originally a Hungarian Jew, immigrated to Ireland. He is said to have later killed himself, leaving his son without a father. Did a Rudolf Virag ever live in Szombathely? The answer I found turned out to be ambiguous. There was no specific Rudolf Virag known to live at 40/41 on Fo ter, but there was a family by the name of Blum at that residence during the 19th century. In Hungarian Virag means flower. In the novel, Rudolf Virag had changed his last name from Virag to Bloom when after emigrating from Hungary to Ireland.  Why did Joyce select Szombathely as the hometown of Rudolf Virag? There are many different theories.

One of the more intriguing credits Joyce’s genius at word play. The pronunciation of Szombathely (Sombattay) sounds like “somebody”, thus it might have been a light-hearted play on words. The most plausible theory is that Joyce was naming it after a close Jewish friend, the scholar Marino De Szombathely. They became acquainted after Joyce and his wife went into self-imposed exile at Trieste (now located in Italy), which was one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main ports on the Adriatic Sea prior to World War I. Joyce may have never made it to Szombathely, but he had a great deal of experience with multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary. For over a decade he taught English, first in the port city of Pula (now located in Croatia) and then in Trieste. He would have come into contact with many Jewish citizens of the empire. Joyce also would have learned about the submerged nationalism of the many ethnic groups advocating for greater representation in the empire. This would have chimed with the Irish nationalism that he knew so well.

Home of the Blum Family - Szombathely

Home of the Blum Family – Szombathely (Credit: Pan Peter)

The Life Of Exiles – Ulysses in Hungary
James Joyce’s experiences while living in Austria-Hungary informed character details and back stories in Ulysses. While Hungary was peripheral to the story, it nonetheless played a part in perhaps the greatest modern novel ever written. Rudolf Virag was a self-imposed exile from Hungary and his creator was a self-imposed exile to Austria-Hungary. Joyce thought enough about Hungary to give Szombathely a minor role in the book, one that the city has repaid with the statue of him walking right out of a wall and nearly into me. This was a shocking surprise, one of several that afternoon in Szombathely.

Click here for: American Shadows – The Bombing of Szombathely: Explosive Effects (Part One)


The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism (Part One)

In the autumn of 1883 a romance began that would continue for the next one-hundred and twenty-five years in a wide variety of forms. This romantic endeavor crisscrossed large swathes of Europe several times a week.  It started in the cultural and artistic wonderland of Europe at that time -Belle epoque Paris – and ended in the exotic east, within sight of the Sea of Marmara, skirting the shadows cast by mosques and minarets in Ottoman-era Constantinople. This romance was none other than the Orient Express. Thousands of passengers took part in the journey, authors waxed poetic about it and the refined elegance it represented became the stuff of legend. Orient and Express were two words bound together by creativity and innovation. They expressed all anyone needed to know about the route. “Orient” symbolized the eastern frontiers of Europe. “Express” a technological wonder that could defeat space and time to make a novel approach into the near east.

Orient Express - Advertising Poster

Orient Express – Advertising Poster (Credit: Jules Cheret)

From Dreams To Reality – All Aboard
The train would pull Europe and its eastern hinterlands closer together in a matter of days. The route made travel possible to places most people had only dreamed of. When the Orient Express first departed, those dreams were on the verge of becoming reality. Many of the stops along the line were much less exotic than Constantinople, but each was glamorous in its own way. Budapest and Bucharest, Vienna and Sofia, with their own unique allure. None of these were as exotic as Constantinople, but each offered a window into a wider world that Parisians or Londoners, aristocrats and journalists scarcely knew. Along the route, the world of Austria-Hungary was to be crossed. A multi-ethnic empire filled with people speaking a multitude of strange languages and adhering to antiquated folk customs. For the Orient Express ran right through the heart of the empire, the railway acting as an arrow piercing the heartland of both Austria and Hungary. The train’s passengers would be witness to an empire that was rapidly changing.

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took place on October 4, 1883. There was a chill in the air as it pulled out of the Gare de L’est (East Station) in Paris. By the time dawn broke the next morning it was approaching Strasbourg, 300 miles to the east. The Express had entered the mighty German Empire, a land of progress that was fast leaving the rest of continental Europe behind. The explosive growth of the German economy was making it a world power. The Express made its way through Bavaria, with a stop at Munich on its first full day. Soon it would be crossing the border into the Austrian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At this point the train had been traveling for thirty hours. It was in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6th that the Orient Express came gliding through the Austrian border town of Branau am Inn, passing not far from the residence of Alois Hitler, a customs officer. Five and a half years later a son would be born to Alois and his third wife Clara. That son would be named Adolf and change the world for the worse.

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke)

Advancing Into The Modern Age – Antecedents In Asia & The West
The Orient Express was now gliding along the 270 miles of railway that stretched between Munich and Vienna. By the late afternoon, it was pulling into the central station at Vienna where its passengers were feted by music from the Imperial Guards. The national anthems of France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey were played by the band, paying homage to each country the train would pass through on this inaugural journey. A huge dinner with champagne and wine was served for the passengers at the station’s restaurant. They were then invited to visit an electric lighting exhibition that had been kept open well past its closing time, just for them. Many of the passengers were too exhausted to attend, which was something of a shame. The exhibition was a showcase for how Austria-Hungary was advancing into the modern age. Trains, railroads and electric lighting were certainly notable achievements, but the stagnant political system which limited the rights of all its disparate nationalities – with the notable exception of a thin veneer of  Austrians and Hungarians – constantly threatened to derail the empire.

Slowly the Orient Express chugged further eastward through the night, making an obligatory stop at Poszony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia) to take on water and fuel. It was now in the Kingdom of Hungary, a land that no less a political figure than the Austrian, Prince Klemens Von Metternich, had once referred to as part of the Orient. The passengers onboard the Express were keen to see Budapest for the first time. The city had experienced explosive growth ever since Buda, Pest and Obuda (Old Buda) had been unified as a single entity a decade earlier. This was no Asiatic city, but a fast growing European metropolis. The railway station at Pest had antecedents in the west, specifically Paris, as it had been designed by the Eiffel Company.  The train’s arrival at mid-morning was greeted by a military band. This was followed by some Hungarian folk music topped off with a buffet that favored Magyar cuisine, specifically goulash.

The Early Years - Routes of the Orient Express 1883 - 1914

The Early Years – Routes of the Orient Express 1883 – 1914 (Credit: Alphthon)

All But The Memory – Ghost Of An Empire
From Budapest it was onto Szeged, a city where the damage from a catastrophic flood four years earlier was still visible. After the Orient Express pulled into the ramshackle station, a gypsy orchestra was sited coming toward the train. Their performance had been prearranged. They were invited to board the train, riding the Express to Temesvar (present-day Timisoara, Romania), where they were already slated to perform a concert that evening. It was a memorable two hour trip, with the strains of Roma music wafting through the restaurant car. The Orient had never sounded so close until that moment. Exoticism, mystery and mystique permeated the air. Once the gypsy orchestra departed, the train headed further east toward the Romanian border and out of Austria-Hungary. It was a memorable first journey through an empire that was not to last nearly as long as the rail route which now ran across the length of it. The Orient Express would still be running long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disappeared from all but the memory. All romances eventually end, but some last longer than others.

Click here for: The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

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

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

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

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

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

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

Bringing an empire back to life - Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits

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

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

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

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

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

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

First & Final Traces – Oppression, Prominence & Prejudice: The Jews of Szombathely (Part One)

In 1960 a remarkable photograph was taken in Szombathely by a man named Gyula Nagy. There is no way of knowing whether Nagy set out to show the remains of two lost civilizations when he snapped the black and white image, but that is exactly what he ended up doing. Nagy took the photo while standing at the ruins of the Temple of Isis, a religious site from the ancient Roman city of Savaria. In the photo’s foreground are three ruined columns, through these would have passed Roman citizens entering or exiting the temple. In the background and to the right of one of the columns, can be seen the Moorish styled synagogue of Szombathely. Its twin domed shaped towers rising above everything else in the photo. The temple’s ruined columns and the synagogue’s towers provide an intriguing architectural expression of all that remained of the Romans and Jews in Szombathely. The Romans had long since passed into history, but the Jews of Szombathely had only recently vanished by the time this photo was taken. The temple ruins are the immediate point of fascination in Nagy’s photo, causing one to reflect on the greatness of Rome and the legacy it left behind.

Whether or not Nagy was trying to evoke the loss of these peoples is open to conjecture, but the fact remains that his photo did just that. The site of Szombathely’s synagogue looming in the background provides a tragic parallel to the temple ruins. Though the synagogue is still intact, the Jews of Szombathely were nearly extinct by this time. The building was no longer a working synagogue, while the culture it stood for was nearly as remote to Szombathely as the ancient Roman one of Savaria. The fall of Savaria, like Rome itself, had taken centuries. The collapse of Szombathely’s Jewish community took just a few months. Both left traces behind that are worth exploring. Many do just that at the Roman ruins, considerably less at the synagogue and associated Jewish sites in the city. The difference in interest is massive. Discovering ancient Rome in Szombathely is enthralling, while discovering the history of the Jews in the city is tragic

Traces of Vanished Civilizations - Szombathely

Traces of Vanished Civilizations – Szombathely (Credit: Gyula Nagy/

Persecution & Pogroms – A History Of Harassment
It is interesting to note the proximity of the ruined Temple of Isis with Szombathely’s most impressive synagogue. This proximity could be interpreted as a historical metaphor. The first Jews likely arrived in the territory of present day Hungary during the 2nd century AD. Roman legions, who had been sent from the province of Pannonia (which included much of present day western Hungary) to put down a revolt in Judea, brought Jews back as slaves. Many of them settled in Savaria. When the Barbarian invasions overran the city in the 5th century, Jews fled along with the Roman inhabitants. A Jewish presence in the area would not be recorded again in this area until the 17th century. During that period and in the centuries that followed, Jews with very few exceptions were not allowed to settle within the city of Szombathely. Instead, they were relegated to the outskirts and surrounding countryside on land set aside at the Bathhyany estates, one of the most powerful noble families in Hungary.

The local Hungarian population viewed Jews in the area with extreme suspicion. The prejudice towards them would never completely vanished and would come to a head on multiple occasions beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1840 Jews finally secured rights to settle in Szombathely after the Habsburg Empire gave them freedom of settlement. By 1848 three hundred had moved or were planning to move into the city. This stirred up antisemitism among the locals. The Jews were viewed as a threat, an alien race that could not be assimilated with the majority Hungarian culture. The more Jews that moved into the city, the greater the chance of a nasty backlash developing. Less than a month after an independent Hungary was proclaimed in the spring of 1848, locals in the city went on a rampage. They attacked the synagogue, ripped up the Torah Scrolls and looted Jewish property. The local administration did nothing to prevent these attacks and subsequently proclaimed that all Jews were being banned from the city. A forcible expulsion was to take place on April 24th for those who failed to leave the city voluntarily. At this point, officials of the national government intervened. The ban never took effect and peace was soon restored, but trust could not easily be repaired.

The Rise To Power  – Freedom From Fear
Most of Szombathely’s citizens continued to view its Jewish populace with skepticism. It would not be until 1867, with the unification of Austria and Hungary in the Dual Monarchy that the Jewish citizens of Szombathely were emancipated and received full civil rights. It was from this point that the city’s Jewish population began a meteoric rise in business and culture, one that would lead directly to the construction of the richly patterned, exotically wondrous edifice of the Neolog (Reformed) Synagogue in 1880. It was built on one side of Bathhyany Square, which only seemed right since that family had afforded invaluable protection and living space for Jews in the area prior to emancipation.

Freed from the shackles of discriminatory legislation the Jews of Szombathely soon came to dominate the business and industrial enterprises in the city. Their wealth, influence and number all grew during the Dual Monarchy era. In 1869 there were 1,154 Jews in Szombathely, by 1900 that figure had grown two and a half-fold to over 2,600. The most common occupation of those with a steady income were merchants. Several major enterprises were owned by Jews, including textile mills and several different industrial concerns. These provided employment for hundreds of non-Jews in Szombathely. Assimilationist tendencies among business minded and progressive Jews, who were a majority of the Jewish population in Szombathely resulted in their widespread acceptance by non-Jews. Their ascent was halted, as with so much else in Hungary, by the First World War.

An Unmitigated Disaster – The Great War Changes Everything
It is no secret that the First World War was an unmitigated disaster for Hungary, the same could also be said for Szombathely’s Jewish inhabitants. This can hardly be disputed, as the post-war Treaty of Trianon resulted in two-thirds of the Kingdom of Hungary’s land area and population being stripped away from it. The scale of this cataclysm serves to obscure the suffering inflicted on Hungarians Jews after the war. Business owners saw their profits plunge as Hungary was cut off from markets in the hinterlands. This was certainly true in Szombathely which lay close to the new border with Austria. Jews were blamed for both the political and economic turmoil that plagued Hungary during this time. Jews were blamed for the Red Revolution which brought a short-lived communist government to power in Hungary. This was followed in turn by a “White Terror” that persecuted anyone suspected of leftist tendencies. Being Jewish was synonymous to many Hungarians with being left wing. Such extremism foreshadowed the rise of fascism and the resulting threat to all Jews in Hungary, including those in Szombathely.