A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews Of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

Jews did not arrive in Vizsoly until the mid-19th century, around the time of the Hungarian War of Independence. That war gave them their first experience of emancipation. It would take another eighteen years until they were fully free with full civil liberties. Allowed to settle wherever they liked, several Jewish families came to Vizsoly. The community was never large, numbering no more than fifty at its peak. Nonetheless, they opened a synagogue, a photo of which still survives today. It was a small building, perhaps a home that had been converted specifically for worship. This was likely all the community could afford at the time. There was also a kosher butcher, who met the dietary needs of the community as well as those of other nearby villages such as Gonc. The most famous Jew to hail from Vizsony was the artist and writer Auerbach Lipot (Acs Lipot), who was born and completed some of his primary schooling in the town. He would eventually move away to study in Budapest, Vienna and Venice. Lipot opened and taught at Applied Art schools in Hungary. His paintings and publications focused on Hungarian folk art.

Headstone in the Jewish Cemetery of Vizsoly

Headstone in the Jewish Cemetery of Vizsoly

The Little That Is Known – A Survivor & Four Families
Those Jews in Vizsoly with ambition and talent who were looking to get ahead would have had to follow Lipot’s lead and move to larger urban areas. The Jewish population of Vizsoly reached its highest peak in 1930. English language information on the Jews of Vizsoly is scant, even for those who suffered in the Holocaust. At least one Hungarian Jew born in Vizoly managed to survive. Erszebet Bretter was born in Vizsoly in 1906. She was thirty-eight years old when the Holocaust struck Hungary. She would end up surviving Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, living in the west until her death in 1977. Whether she was in Vizsoly at the time of the Holocaust is unclear. Probably not, because she was deported to a different camp than the unfortunate Jews of Vizsoly.

Those living in Vizsoly during the spring of 1944 did not pose a threat to anyone, not the Hungarian state nor the German occupied one that imposed its will on the country beginning in the middle of March 1944. What was clear though, is that every Jew in provincial Hungary was to be rounded up and deported, the majority of whom would end up inside the lethal confines of Auschwitz. How large or small the community did not matter. Case in point Vizsoly, where only four Jewish families lived at the time. It is deeply unsettling to think how pervasive the prejudice must have been against Jews. Deportation was so widespread that it consumed the lives of a minority community in a small, out of the way town in one of Hungary’s most rural areas.

The Vizsoly Synagogue

The Vizsoly Synagogue

Doing The Dirty Work – Genocide & The Gendarmerie
It is almost certain that the Hungarian gendarmerie did the dirty work of arresting Vizsoly’s tiny Jewish community for the Nazis. Their job was to gather and deport Jews. Everyone in Vizsoly would have known who was a Jew in the town. Did any gentile raise their voice in protest? Silence would have been futile, in this case it was also deadly. The gendarmes would have told those four families to gather a small amount of their belongings in a matter of hours. They were headed to Kassa (present-day Kosice, Slovakia), a little more than an hour to the north. The Vizsoly Jews would then be grouped together with other Jews from nearby communities. Were they unsuspecting or did they assume the worst when arrested? We can only imagine.

Once in Kassa they were likely taken to a local brickyard which was transformed into a ghetto. It was there that the thousands of Jews deported from rural areas were gathered. Treatment by the Hungarian gendarmes who policed these collection points was harsh. Beatings and torture were a regular occurrence. Hard labor was not so much punishment, as a fact of existence. Word of mouth in the ghetto, the poor living conditions and pervasive ultraviolence would have then made clear to the Jews from Vizsoly what fate likely awaited them at their last destination. From Kassa, which was a major railway junction, it was just a matter of time before they were taken onto Auschwitz.

The Brutal Finale – Deportation, Desperation & Death
Beginning in mid-May this is exactly what happened. Between May 19th and June 4th five transports, each carrying thousands of Jews including those from Vizsoly, were sent to Auschwitz. This was how 15,770 Jews were liquidated from German occupied Hungarian territory in a little over two and a half weeks. The breathtaking speed and brutality with which these deportations were carried out gave these Jews no time to organize any real resistance. Most would have been murdered soon after arrival at Auschwitz, some may have been selected for labor duty, but this was just a slower death sentence. Vizsoly’s Jewish community died in southern Poland, far away from the snow covered Zemplen Hills they had been forced to leave behind.

Time was of the essence throughout this murderous process. Consider that in a matter of three months those four Jewish families from the rural backwater of Vizsoly had been forced out of their homes, moved to a brickyard/ghetto in the closest city, then transported to a death camp in another country. Both their lives and property were liquidated during this time with extreme prejudice. Three months is little in the span of a normal human life, in the case of provincial Hungarian Jews it was a matter of life and death. In Vizsoly the belongings and property of the town’s Jewish inhabitants was either taken by the gendarmes who rounded them up or offered to the locals. Material items came to be the property of people who a few weeks earlier had been their neighbors and acquaintances.

Jewish Cemetery in Vizsoly

Jewish Cemetery in Vizsoly

The Unrecovered Memory – Forgetting To Remember
Most traces of the Jews in Hungary vanished, but in Vizsoly no one touched the Jewish cemetery. Whether it was left intact out of shame, respect or even fear, there is no way of knowing. Its continued existence a sign of reverence and indifference, one of many paradoxes that sums up the legacy of its small population of Jews. Standing in that cemetery on a cold winter day, looking at a handful of headstones whose engravings were covered by moss and weathered yellow by time, I could not help but feel that this little cemetery was a symptom of something larger that stalked the memory of Hungarians when it came to the Holocaust. It is something they do not care to remember, but it is something they can never forget.

Click here for: Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)


Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)

I was speeding through the undulating foothills of the Zemplen range in northeastern Hungary on my way to Vizsoly, a small village on the fringes of more mountainous terrain. The sky was colored a slate grey, the trees were leafless and the dark fields of turned up earth were lightly covered with a dirty snow. It was December, less than a week before Christmas and the landscape was just as dead as the towns. The road was filled with holes large and small, that could be dodged by driving in the middle of the road. Traffic was light and scattered. The small, covered rural bus stops were deserted. At times when the sun threatened to peek through, the mist, fog and cloud cover blended together into a blinding light that made the eyes ache. Despite a good night’s sleep, I almost dozed off a few kilometers out of Boldogkovaralja. No amount of coffee could make a person truly alert in this pervasive and permanent gloom. It was easy to see why there was no traffic, except for a few locals this time of year. The entire region looked as though it was asleep. The people and landscape were in winter hibernation.

All that remains - Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

All that remains – Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

Getting Religion – A Visit To Vizsoly
I was traveling to Vizsoly for one reason only, to see where the first Hungarian language translation of the Bible had taken place in the late 16th century. This seemingly out of the way village had once been a hot bed of Protestantism, bequeathing it an outsized role in Hungarian literary and religious history that was well beyond the scale of contemporary Vizoly, which was little more than a small village. Yet Vizoly’s history in the service of Protestantism, the Hungarian language and book printing was magnetic. It drew me to the village out of curiosity. This out of the way town had once been the hub for a printing operation that helped change Hungary I soon caught sight of the town’s outskirts, beginning to search the roadside for any sign of the museum and adjacent Calvinist church that contained remnants of medieval frescoes. Just as I was beginning to enter the village, my attention turned to something else.

Just off the roadside I caught a glimpse of several stone markers and a few larger stone monuments in a small field surrounded by a thin wire fence with a gated entrance. The gate was half open. The stone markers looked like ones I had seen in a photo the night before. The photo was in a Hungarian language tourist atlas of the Zemplen Hills provided by my accommodation. That photo had shown a Jewish cemetery in Mad, which was a large town further down the valley. I made a mental note to stop and look at these markers on my way out of Vizsoly after I had visited the Bible Museum. It was hard to believe that a small place would have a Jewish cemetery, let alone an intact one. Then again, the place was remote enough that there was a chance that it had survived the Holocaust, unlike the Jewish population who once inhabited the town.

Reverence, Neglect, Indifference – Preservation Of An Existence
The scope and scale of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies during the Holocaust in Hungary can be understood in two numbers, both horrifying in the extreme. 596,000 – the number of Hungarian Jews murdered. 90% – the chance that a Jew in rural Hungary would be murdered. The first figure is built upon the second one which is often overlooked. The sheer thoroughness of the Holocaust in rural and provincial Hungary is just as witheringly catastrophic as the total number killed. I began to understand the scope of this murderous rampage when I stopped on my way back out of Vizsoly.  What I had assumed earlier, that the stones I spotted from the road were part of a small Jewish cemetery, turned out to be true. The headstones were in various states of disarray, while there were a couple of larger monuments that had been erected for individuals who were buried there. The cemetery was not exactly well kept, though it did have green grass. The fence surrounding it was constructed out of thin wire and was intact. The gate was open for anyone who cared to visit. That made me wonder just who visited this place.

The cemetery was remote, even by Hungarian standards. It stood on the margins of the town, much like the town’s Jewish community. It was a part of Vizsoly, but apart from it, separate and distinct. I doubted those who lived in Vizsoly gave it much thought, other than the fact that by allowing it to remain they were honoring history and memory. That was more than could be said for many old sites of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe. As for Jews who might come to visit, one thing was for certain, they would not be from Vizsoly. Its small Jewish community was now but a memory and this cemetery was all that was left. The last Jews to inhabit Vizsoly were not buried here, they had lost their lives far away from their hometown. No one knows of Vizsoly, everyone knows about Auschwitz. A little less than a century of Jewish life in Vizsoly died during the Holocaust.

A Poignant Sadness – A Legacy Written In Stone
The only remnants left of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were to be found in the cemetery. Not its most recent ones, who had perished in a concentration camp, but their ancestors. Sadly, they had been lucky in death. To die before the war meant a legacy preserved with a stone marker in this cemetery. These traces of Hungarian Jewish history were poignantly sad, if not to say tragic. Despite the continued existence of the cemetery, it was a place more about absence than presence. A reminder of a lost world and a place that raised more questions than answers. Why was it left untouched? Out of reverence, neglect or indifference. The insidious passions of World War II had long since subsided, but the Jewish legacy of Vizsoly lived on or at least that is what I wanted to believe.

Click here for: A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

It will be many months or years before I am able to visit Szollos Castle in Vynohradiv, Ukraine. I cannot go there at this time due to the simple fact that I am sitting thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the castle. The only guide I have for now is Eleanor Perenyi’s memoir, More Was Lost, it will have to suffice as a substitute. That might just be good enough, because Perenyi’s writing offers a vivid description of the castle during those final years just before World War II descended on the castle and its inhabitants, altering the course of its history and destroying those that had given it such life. Fortunately, Perenyi keeps memory of the castle alive through the written word. It is a pleasant irony that she recovers some of what was lost at Szollos with her book. Ironic because books helped her learn about the Castle’s past while living there in the late 1930’s. She was one of the last to enjoy an incredible library that would be scattered to the winds just a few years later.

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Man Of Reason – A Legacy Of Learning
Many of the great aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes collected over many centuries. These same libraries also could contain letters that told of everyday life for the nobility. The Perenyi family had one such library. It was discovered by Eleanor Perenyi not long after she arrived at Szollos. She found the library in a downstairs room tucked behind accessories used to run the castle’s wine business. The books were still locked away in glass cases. It turned out that there was much more locked in those cases, including decades of correspondence between family members and friends. The ultimate trove were the old books, some of these dusty tomes had sheepskin bindings and covers. Much of the collection came from a family forebear by the name of Alexei Perenyi who had inhabited the castle a century and a half earlier.

Alexei’s prized books reflected the influence and popularity of French thinkers during this time. Alexei Perenyi had come of age during the Enlightenment, thus the library’s greatest works were the product of men such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Latin and German works were also well represented. The purpose of reading during the 18th century in Hungary was to educate rather than entertain. Reading expanded the world and connected Hungary with a Europe enthralled by the Enlightenment. What influence these books had upon Hungarian political thought and discourse can only be imagined. The latter half of the 18th century was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Hungarian nobles. The Ottoman Turkish occupation was growing more distant with each passing decade, by comparison Habsburg rule were relatively benign. The Kingdom of Hungary was by no means independent or autonomous, but Hungarian consent in imperial affairs was often sought by the Habsburgs. Alexei Perenyi may have been in a European backwater, but his books showed that he was connected to a much larger and changing world.

Telling Tales – The Life Of A Family
These books were so inviting to look at and delicious to read that Eleanor Perenyi had them relocated to a room closest to where she slept. The true power of those volumes was not only in the ideas they transmitted, but the fact that she was following in the footsteps of a Perenyi forebear who also craved the written word. This continued a tradition of self-education that was central to the lives of Alexei and Eleanor Perenyi, a connection that stretched across a century and a half. It is hard to imagine the value of the Perenyi library during the 18th century. This has little to do with money. The books of Alexei Perenyi also acted as a sort of news of the day, filled with new ideas and information. It is hard to imagine just how remote Perenyi Castle was back then from the centers of political power in Vienna and Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). The books Eleanor found were a lifeline to the outside world for Alexei Perenyi. And this world did not speak a word of English, since there was not one English language book to be found in the entire library.

And it was not just books that Eleanor discovered, she also delved deeply into an archive of family correspondence. Unlike the books that were filled with ideas and information, these personal letters were rich in narrative. They told of the everyday lives led by several generations of Perenyi’s and their friends during the heyday of Austria-Hungary. This was a time when the Adriatic was almost as much a Hungarian Sea as Lake Balaton. Trips to the seaside of what is today Croatia and northeastern Italy were a rite of passage. Governesses and archduchesses were as much a part of life as horse riding and hunting. This world had not quite been lost, but irreparably altered by the Great War. Viewed through the prism of personal letters it was both real and fantastical. Eleanor read love letters quaint yet romantic in their formality. I am quite sure that she was able to put herself in place of the author, imagining how she would have reacted or felt in similar circumstances. Time must have ticked backwards for her as she read the letters and relived the lives of people whose footsteps she was now following. In this sense, the library spoke volumes.

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Reimagined & Recovered – The Glory Of Dusty Volumes
Then another cataclysm – World War II – executed the final death sentence for Perenyi Castle and the nobility at Szollos. Among the victims was their library. We can only imagine how the books and letters were either stolen or destroyed, scattered in a hundred directions or cast into the rubbish bin. The terrible birth of Stalinism in the Subcarpathians required this loss of lifeblood. An avenging Red Army set in motion a merciless destruction of the Perenyi’s past. For the Soviets had to destroy the past, so they could control the future. Eleanor Perenyi was the last in the family line to experience that wonderful library as it had existed for centuries. It had been a great gift for her and she paid it the ultimate respect, by recreating it in her memoir. Each sentence a shelve, every word a book or letter to be reimagined and recovered by future generations such as myself. Left to marvel at the glory of those dusty volumes and the woman who brought a library back to life through a single book.

In The Shadow Of The Carpathians -Eleanor Perenyi at Szollos: Finding What Was Lost (Part One)

I was looking to kill an hour before meeting friends for dinner in Budapest. I was already out and about in the city, so I chose one of my favorite activities to pass the time, looking in bookstores for English language books. This is how I ended up at the Libri bookstore across from Nyugati (Western) Train Station on a mid-winter’s afternoon. I had been in this bookstore many times before, always finding their selection of English language books in disarray. The fiction was interspersed with the non-fiction, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Tourist guidebooks could be found in more than one section, as could the oversized picture books that are so popular with tourists. The arrangement made little sense and was haphazard at best. This left me at the mercy of serendipity.

While picking my way through the stacks I noticed a paperback with a deep red spine. At first I thought the book was fiction, perhaps a short novel. The author had a Hungarian surname which piqued my interest. I had never heard of Eleanor Perenyi or the book, entitled More Was Lost: A Memoir. The cover displayed a painting called An Autumn Landscape. In that painting the trees are colored a deep orangish-red, in the background hills tinged with a violet hue are set against a yellow sky. The painting evokes a world almost on fire. This was definitely an autumn landscape, but where? I soon found the place it was meant to evoke.

The Castle at Szollos - during the 1930s

The Castle at Szollos – during the 1930s

Teetering On The Edge – The Waning Days Of Nobility
A short description of the author and her memoir were written neatly across the back cover. I was surprised to learn that Eleanor Perenyi was an American who “falls in love with a poor Hungarian baron and in short order acquires both a title and a struggling country estate at the edge of the Carpathians.” That last word hooked me. Carpathians conjured images of dark forests, remote frontier and a mysterious land. The other grabber was, “observing the invisible order of the Czech rule, the resentment of the native Ruthenians and the haughtiness of the dispossessed Hungarians”. Perenyi had lived in an area where borders collided. That pre-World War II world where disparate peoples lived side by side, each with their own languages, cultures, customs and  political aspirations. I had traveled by train on a couple of occasions through this area known as the sub-Carpathians, which in the 20th century had been part of Greater Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, back to Hungary, the Soviet Union and finally Ukraine.

This was a region at a time in history – the late 1930’s -of which relatively little was written in the English language. Perenyi was one of the few Americans who had witnessed the waning days of Hungarian nobility as it teetered on the edge of destruction. I flipped through the pages, looking for place names. On page 33 I found a grainy black and white photo of a Baroque palace labeled Szollos. The photo drew me in like a magnet, I needed this place, not only in the past of this memoir, but in the future for my life. I impulsively made the decision to purchase the book. The purchase was an affirmation that I would plan on visiting Szollos. That is if it still existed.

Eleanor Perenyi - Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Eleanor Perenyi – Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Heirs To A Noble Heritage –  The Perenyi’s Place In The World
Immediately I read through the book’s introduction which gave an overview of Eleanor Perenyi’s life. I discovered she came from a wealthy family in the northeastern United States. She had been traveling with her mother in Europe, when she went to dinner one night in Budapest. That was where the young Eleanor, who was only of high school age at the time, met Zsiga Perenyi. It was not long thereafter that the couple was married in Venice. Zsiga was heir to a noble heritage, but at this point in history the Perenyi family was nearly impoverished. They did own a palace and small estate which had ended up in the Subcarpathia region of Czechoslovakia due to the post-World War One Treaty Of Trianon which had dismembered Greater Hungary. This was problematic. When they had first met, Zsiga did not have the right to live at his ancestral family home, only visit. The land reform following Czechoslovakia’s takeover of the region had led to shrinkage of the Perenyi estate. Despite this, there was still the palace, orchards, a garden and forests that might somehow be renovated into a viable estate. Zsiga obtained the proper permission to resettle there along with his new American wife. This was as far as I got into the book during my first reading.

I could hardly wait to do research on Szollos, to learn some of its history and locate it on a map. The place Eleanor Perenyi refers to as Szollos is actually Vynohradiv (Nagyszolos in Hungarian) in extreme southwestern Ukraine today. I had already learned from the book’s introduction that the castle still existed, albeit in a much different state from when the newlywed Perenyi’s lived there. The exterior looked much the same as it did before the war broke out. The interior was an entirely different story. From what I could see it had been greatly modified. Ironically the Soviets had made a museum out of it, but then Ukraine transformed it into an administration building for the local schools. This was nothing new for old aristocratic palaces and manor houses in Eastern Europe. Since the mid-20th century they have been valued as much for utilitarian purposes as for their history. Zakarpattia Oblast, the Ukrainian administrative district where the former Perenyi residence is located today, happens to be one of the poorest places in the country. Since the castle was such a well-built structure it has been used for a multitude of enterprises. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, thus it is much harder to procure development funds for reconstruction. History is not number one on the list of priorities for a place struggling to survive.

Perenyi Castle

Perenyi Castle (Credit: ibulyah)

Haunted Castle  – The Ghosts of Love
From what I discovered  in my initial research the past is a different country in Szollos, lost in time, but not to memory because More Was Lost manages to capture the past. Perenyi’s love for that period of her life was so great that she could not fathom a return, the hurt went too deep. She was aware of how much had changed at the castle, it was one of the reasons she never went back, not once after writing her memoir, even though she lived until 2009. The couple’s only child, a son named Peter, visited in 2001. He brought back pictures which caused his mother to recoil in horror. The castle was a far cry from the way it looked in her day or for that matter today. It was on the verge of becoming, like her long ago love, a ruin. Since that time enough work has been done to make it look respectable and worth a visit, if no longer for the Perenyi family, then at least for me.

Coming soon: A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)



A Periphery As The Center – The Erdohat: Hungary’s Forsaken & Beloved Land

I used to think that the Nyirseg, a region in the far reaches of eastern Hungary covered by birch trees, dunes and reclaimed marshland was the remotest in the country. A place largely untouched by modern tourism. That was until I learned about the Erdohat, a region even further out on Hungary’s eastern frontier. It occupies the southern part of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg County. The Erdohat is so remote that it has even managed to largely escape the internet’s attention. Google Erdohat and the search engine returns 527 results, compared with 60,900 for the Nyirseg. If the Nyirseg is Hungary’s land of beyond, then the Erdohat is the back of beyond. A place that shows a way much of Hungary used to be and parts of it are likely to become in the future. A glimpse of the country before industrialization and urbanization. The idea of cities is anathema to the Erdohat. The largest town, Fehergyarmet, has a population of just over 8,000 people. This is a land of villages, some have called it the quintessential Hungary, which is another way of saying traditional, rural and agricultural. A region where people still live off a combination of their wits and the land.

To another world - Szatmárcseké Cemetery

To another world – Szatmárcseké Cemetery (Credit: fuzlac23)

Notable For A Lack Of Notoriety – An Island To Itself
Time has a different meaning in the Erdohat, measured by lifespans rather than days or decades. It is pliable, rather than rigid. No one is in a hurry, because there is nowhere to go. Horse drawn trumps horse power. This all sounds wonderful for those urban dwellers who long for fresh air and natural beauty. The reality is much harsher. This is a hardscrabble land, economically backward. It is not so much forgotten, as forsaken. The way of life here would be more familiar to someone a century ago, even though the industrial age brought cars, paved roads and electricity. These are not of the essence, because modernity has touched this area lightly. Technology is kept at a distance as much by indifference as limited incomes. There is a refreshing simplicity about the area. A place that is most notable for its lack of notoriety.

The Erdohat is not a forgotten land, more like a forsaken one. Some might even call this the real Hungary, secure in the knowledge that they will never live there and only pay it a rare visit. It seems romantic from a distance, mostly by those who do not have to eke out a living on it. Isolation has been the rule rather the exception here for centuries. This isolation connects the Erdohat’s present to its deep past. The region was shaped by flooding that consumed the area south of the Tisza River. Swamp, morass, marshland was thus formed. This isolated many villages, making them islands unto themselves. The many invaders that ravaged or occupied other areas of Hungary showed little interest in trying to tame this wild land. The roads were bad, the villages secluded. The inhabitants were left to their own devices. If they wanted this land, they could have it. It was not easy, even for the hard-bitten locals to find high or dry land, let own scratch a living from the soggy soil.

18th century map of land cover - Szatmar Plain

18th century map of land cover – Szatmar Plain

A Truly Wild Land – The Few & Far Between
An 18th century map of the Szatmar Plain, which contains the Erdohat, shows a wide, contiguous swath of the area labeled as either mud or marshland. As part of an ancient flood plain it suffered innumerable inundations and continued to until the dawn of the modern age. This decided the area’s fate thousands of years before Hungarians attempted to tame it. Like all truly wild places, the Erdohat’s landscape had more influence on its inhabitants than they on it. That was until the great river regulations which transformed it during the 19th century. Drainage canals and ditches made the land much more inhabitable and receptive to agriculture. The area had previously been home to thick forests, but along with drainage of the land, much of the forest was removed to make the Erdohat suitable for agriculture. These changes never really did end the region’s isolation, though it brought more settlement to the region. It was geopolitics rather than the environment which confirmed the Erdohat’s remote status. When the borders of Hungary were trimmed after World War I, the Erdohat became the eastern edge of the country. A state of geography which still exists today.

The true value of the Erdohat for many Hungarians is that it evokes the rural, a magnetic attraction to the land. A unique culture still exists here, protected by insularity and cultivated by seclusion. To discover the Erdohat’s highlights one must seek out the few and far between places, ones that offer a window into the soul of a stranger land. Quaint folk customs and age-old traditions continue to thrive, the kind that make ethnographers and anthropologists salivate. Churches with wooden spires and belfries are among the most prominent architectural features. It only makes sense that one of the strangest and most iconic sights is to be found in a cemetery. The Szatmarcseke Calvinist Cemetery, located in a village of the same name, contains boat shaped wooden tombstones. Such markers infuse the cemetery with a distinct spirit. Nowhere to be found are the harsh concrete or polished tombstones which are hallmarks of modern cemeteries. The people may have died, but they are marked by this unique reverence. The way of life goes on in the Erdohat with no end in sight.

Reformed Church in Fehergyarmat

In the heart – Reformed Church in Fehergyarmat (Credit: Kalyob)

The Center Of A Nation – Back To Nature
Of course, like much of Hungary the Erdohat suffers from demographic decline, but suffering is nothing new in a landscape that was long known for its forbidding nature. Survival defines the Erdohat more than prosperity. Life is hard here and always will be. As the population declines, nature will slowly retake many of the old villages. Vacant houses crumble, villages die out. While sad, this also seems to be the natural state of things for this land. The Erdohat now consumes more people than it produces. If anything, it is becoming increasingly remote from the rest of Hungary. At the same time, it is a storehouse of nature, folk culture, rural life and traditional values that Hungarians hold deep in their hearts. The center of a nation found on the periphery.

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen: When The Sun Shone The Brightest

In the mid-1970’s a little girl and her father went out one day to pick flowers for her mother in Debrecen, Hungary. It was the beginning of springtime. The trees were just beginning to blossom, but there was still a nip of cold in the air. The little girl, no more than four years old at time, was bundled up tight against the late afternoon chill. Her head and neck were wrapped in a scarf. Her father was dressed in trench coat and slacks. There was something extraordinary and memorable about the ordinariness of that moment which was captured in a photo forever. The photo shows the little girl clutching flowers she has gathered in her right hand, while looking toward the camera. Her father is holding her around the hips and is looking at her with a gaze of serenity and love. This scene must have been repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times over the coming years. Then one day many years later the father died, at least in a physical sense. He did not die spiritually. That is because his daughter carried the love he gave to her and his family forward into the world. Loved ones never really die, because they live on through the love they gave to others.

A Little Girl & Her Father - Debrecen

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen

Broken Homes – The Curse Of Total War
The father never knew his father. He was more than likely dead before his son was born. Even if he was still alive it was in a concentration camp far away from eastern Hungary. On the day he died, the son would not have known what a father was and the father would not have ever seen his son. Europe in the 1940’s was filled with these types of tragedies, the curse of total war. Fathers went off to fronts, battle or genocidal ones and never returned. There was a void left in every nation and an emptiness occupying a multitude of hearts. Thus, sons and daughters grew up without their fathers. Their mothers were single parents not by choice, but by fate. The mother of the son in Debrecen, raised the boy the best she could under the circumstances. She had to be tough. Debrecen was badly damaged by the war, both physically and mentally. The economy was in tatters, the nation was trying to rebuild while the Soviets were exacting reparations a thousand thefts at a time.

The mother had been damaged even worse. She had narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust. Her husband was Jewish and she was ethnically Hungarian. Such was the difference between life and death in those days of darkness. In the spring of 1944 her husband was walled off from her in the ghetto. Then a month or two later taken to the brickyard at Serly, before being deported beyond Hungary’s borders to hell on earth. And speaking of hell on earth, the Soviets and Germans fought a massive tank battle on the edge of Debrecen while the Americans bombed it from above. Hell from the ground up and the sky below. Soviet soldiers did unspeakable things that would only be recalled in recurring nightmares for the rest of women’s lives.

My Heart – Healing With Happiness
We can never know what the mother went through. The will to endure must have been strong, because there was no other option. The instinct of a mother to provide for her child gave her the will to overcome desperate circumstances. The son turned out to be highly intelligent. He had a gift for learning, which morphed into a love for medicine. The son without a father and a mother working a commoners job just to make ends meet, odd couples like these were the rule not the exception at that time in Hungary. Fortunately, there was a system in Hungary that could help the working class and those who excelled in school. Communism was a human tragedy for Hungary during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, but the system had its uses as well as its abuses. Free education was there for the taking, a brilliant mind could get you a degree and lead to a medical practice. It also led the son to meet the love of his life. Not far from the college at a restaurant that is still there today, the son met a woman of supreme intellect. One of the few who could match wits with him. They would come to refer to each other as my heart. For them there was the kind of love that sprinkles the world with a mysterious magic. Conjuring a romance out of every moment they spent together.

The inevitable outcome was marriage, then a son and a daughter. Trips to the Black Sea by way of a Trabant, family vacations along the Adriatic. In photos the son, who has now become a proud father, beams with happiness. Everyone who knew him said that this was a man who loved life. And he gave life, to the sick and the weak and the suffering. His profession was to heal others, not just with his mind, but also his happiness. Perhaps such enjoyment of life reflected an awareness that his own father had happiness and contentment stolen away from him by the Holocaust. Or maybe he realized how lucky he, the son, had been. If born only a year or two earlier, the likelihood is that he would have perished at a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Some people would say that it is better to be lucky than it is good. Well he was both lucky and good, some would even say great.

Greater Than Any River Of Tears – Memories Of A Father
There were so many days like the one captured in the photo. Taking his daughter for walks to gather flowers, holding her hand as she tottered along beside him, giving her hugs and kisses when he arrived home from the clinic. And as she grew older his love grew with her. It was a magnificent life up until the day that tragedy struck. The sickness came unannounced, creeping up on him when he was in the prime of life. In a cruel irony he diagnosed himself with a terminal illness. The man who had cured so many, could not cure himself. His family watched helplessly as he lost his hair and then they lost him. The memory of the father haunted a house on the edge of Debrecen. There was a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep. There were muffled tears behind closed doors. Days of darkness even when the sun shone at its brightest.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the grief dissipated and the wellspring of enchanting memories returned to life. Never more so than the day his widow began looking at old family photos tucked away in a drawer.  There among the images, was one she set aside and would share with her daughter. It brought back a flood of memories much greater than any river of tears. Memories of the love, romance and beauty of life. Memories of a father who melted the hearts of everyone he met. None more so than the daughter he adored and the wife he loved with all his heart. In that one photo, there was a little girl and her father picking flowers for the mother. The mother who watched from behind the lens of a camera, capturing the love of their lives.

In memory of Erno Berenyi 1944 – 1990

The Book Of Names – Erno Berger: A Resurrection At Auschwitz

It was in Block 27 at Auschwitz that I came upon one of the most arresting physical representations of the Holocaust ever conceived. In one room of the block can be found The Book of Names. The title of the exhibit is perfectly descriptive, but trying to explain the effect of this voluminous compendium of death is not easy. Try to imagine the number and size of the pages it would take to print the names of 4.2 million people. Now imagine that after each name, the year and place where that person was born is given. Finally, try to visualize that at the end of each entry, the place where the person was murdered during the Holocaust is listed, if it is known. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine The Book of Names. The entire exhibit stretches out over several meters with the large pages bound together in a multi rowed, thick compendium of tragedy. It is the thickest book I have ever seen before and I hope to never see another one like it again.

What makes this huge tome particularly unfathomable is its subject matter and what that endless list of names says about humanity. Everyone listed in the book was murdered due to a choice by one group of human beings to single out and destroy another group. This litany of depressing data gives the sparse details of the individual lives and deaths of millions. Open The Book of Names to any page and one is confronted with hundreds of lines that cause the senses to reel. Soon the eyes glaze over as one name looks like another name. After a couple of pages all those lines run together. The sheer immensity of this catalog documenting the humanity lost in the Holocaust can scarcely be conceptualized by the mind. The only way for me to make any sense of it was to seek out an individual name. I had one to focus on, a personal connection, that suddenly made my eyes stop and closely search all those lines for traces of an existence.

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Outlines Of A Life – The Power Of Presence

The name I searched for was that of Erno Berger. It took me several minutes just to find the specific page. There was not one Erno Berger, but many lines listing men with that same name from a multitude of places in Eastern Europe. There were thirty-one Erno Bergers in all. Just the fact that the name was repeated so many times was a chilling reminder to me the depth and penetration of the Nazi’s genocidal thoroughness. I began to study each Erno Berger entry more closely until I found the specific one I was searching for. Finally, I came upon the following entry: Berger, Erno, 2/3/1982 Belgrad, Yugoslavia, Place of death unknown.

It was a surreal feeling to find this Erno Berger. Suddenly, I felt a pulse of energy and interest. A tangible connection had been made. For a moment, at least for me, Erno Berger rose from beyond all those pages, he came back to life, if just for a moment. He was no longer anonymous or just another name among millions, but a person whose existence had been documented. He lived on in this handful of details, straddling a couple of lines his life and death came down to these inches. It is an extraordinarily powerful feeling to never have met someone, to have been born a quarter century after they died and yet feel like they are very close to you. I could not touch this man’s presence, but he was touching mine. I, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no Jewish blood suddenly had a connection, a thread that I could unspool and use to trace the outlines of a life lost among millions of others lost.

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

From Father To Son  – Making A Name For Themselves
Who was Erno Berger and why was I searching for him in The Book Of Names?  He was born in Belgrad during the late winter of 1892. His father was J Kohn. Eventually he migrated to Debrecen in eastern Hungary where he worked as an electrician. In June 1944, he along with nearly the entire community of Jews in Debrecen – 7,411 to be precise – was rounded up and deported. The deportees were sent either to Auschwitz or Austria where many more would die in forced labor battalions. Which one Erno Berger went to is still a mystery. Somehow he ended up in Bergen-Belsen where he died. One thing is for certain, he never came back to Debrecen. The only existing remnant of his existence is his name on a memorial wall. It can be found in the courtyard of one of only two active synagogues left in Debrecen. He never saw his ethnic Hungarian wife again or the lone child that was born to the couple not long after Erno’s deportation.

This son would be given the name of the father he never knew. His surname eventually changed, as so many Hungarians Jews did during the communist period to avoid persecution and any lingering anti-Semitism. Assimilation was no longer necessary to survive, but it was to thrive. The son would grow up to become a noted physician in the city that had rejected his father. He would eventually marry a Hungarian as well, just as his father did. This was in the late 1960’s rather than the mid-1940’s. Hungary was a very different place by then. The kind of place where a man with brilliant intellect and smarts could achieve great things, despite or perhaps because of communism. And this son did just that. He healed, he taught, he loved and he lived. If not for him, I would never have been standing at Auschwitz searching for the name of Erno Berger.

A Lot To Learn – Ancestral Feelings
The son and by extension his father really must have been something, to have such power and influence continue beyond life. I never met either of them and never will. The day the son died I was still in high school. I did not know anything about Hungary and the Holocaust meant little to me other than what we learned of it in history class. I had a lot to learn then, I still do now. Erno Berger and his son meant a whole new world to me because they were my wife’s grandfather and father respectively. It has been through her that I came to know them. And it has been through her that I can see them.

A Question Of Character – Artur Gorgei : The Misunderstood Patriot As A Symbol Of Betrayal

I do not remember exactly when, but it was sometime during my first few years in grade school that the word traitor and the name of Benedict Arnold became synonymous in my mind. Arnold was the turncoat who betrayed the Continental Army to the British. His actions dealt a grievous blow to America’s revolutionary effort. Arnold’s reputation has not changed much in my lifetime. I have always felt the assessment of him has been quite fair. The same cannot be said of another supposed arch traitor from the pages of history, the Hungarian general from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Artur Gorgei. His turncoat status has been debated by generations of Hungarians. Some of these see Gorgei as a convenient fall guy for Lajos Kossuth. Others see him as the man who surrendered the Hungarian Army in an effort to save his own skin, while still others see him as a symbol of nation that could never accept its surrender. The most interesting thing about Gorgei’s reputation is that it is still in doubt and probably always will be.

Artúr Gorgei - misunderstood patriot

Artúr Gorgei – misunderstood patriot (Credit: Miklós Barabás)

Beyond Hope – Surrendering To The Situation
On August 11, 1849 with the tide of military affairs turning decisively against Hungary, its Regent-President Lajos Kossuth fled the nation. Kossuth turned over all authority to General Artur Gorgei who was leading the outmatched Hungarian Army. In effect, Kossuth had absolved himself from responsibility in an untenable situation while at the same time making sure he was safe abroad. By this time, the Russian Army had come in on the side of the Austrian Habsburgs making the Hungarian Army’s position hopeless. Gorgei was a realist, he knew that holding out would only cost more lives in a futile fight for a lost cause. It would not be long before he surrendered, hoping that the Austrians would have mercy on the revolutionaries. They would not, but the Russians saw to it that Gorgei escaped their wrath. Meanwhile, Kossuth who was safely ensconced in Bulgaria, called out Gorgei as “Hungary’s Judas”. This was the same Kossuth who had said to the nation at the time of his abdication that “all hope was at an end”.

If all hope had indeed been lost, then why was Gorgei to blame? Or was Kossuth trying to draw attention away from the fact that he had abandoned the nation at the time of its greatest peril? For their part, the Austrians showed little remorse. Most famously they executed 13 Hungarian military leaders at Arad in what is today Romania. Gorgei’s life was not only spared due to the intervention of Tsar Nicholas I, but he was also paid 1,100 gold coins by the Russian military commander in a show of respect. Though Gorgei used these funds to help his fellow soldiers, most Hungarians were swayed by the myth that Kossuth propagated. In the public’s mind, Gorgei was to become Hungary’s Benedict Arnold, while Kossuth was faithfully still fighting the Revolution in perpetual exile. The fact that Gorgei lived while other fellow officers were executed made it look like he had surrendered in order to avoid the ultimate penalty. Looking at just his decision to surrender in isolation, it is easy to understand how Gorgei’s actions were misconstrued as traitorous behavior.

Artúr Görgei - later in life

Artúr Görgei – later in life

A Revolt Within A Revolution – Reputation Mismanagement
A more balanced perspective comes from examining Gorgei’s conduct in regard to military affairs in 1848-1849. A case can be made that the Hungarian Revolution would not have met with near the success that it did if not for Gorgei’s military ability. He defeated Croatian and Austrian forces in multiple battles, but also made a strategic blunder by failing to go on the offensive along the Austrian frontier in the first half of 1849. The resulting inaction, coupled with time wasted besieging enemy forces in Buda, allowed the Austrians to regroup.  To make matters worse, Gorgei and Kossuth had clashed several times over the conduct of the war. At one point Gorgei had issued a statement calling out the political leaders for trying to micro-manage his military decisions. He fought independent of their authority for a while in the mountains. A revolt within a revolution has never been a good idea.

Gorgei’s military acumen was too valuable for Hungary’s political leaders to ignore his martial talents. Despite the infighting he was placed back in charge of the army and campaigned all the way to the bitter surrender. Thus, Gorgei’s record during the revolution is one of both accomplishment and failure. His reputation, even without the surrender, would have been ambiguous. Gorgei shared a commonality with the controversy that surrounded him, longevity. He and the debate over his actions at the end of the war would not go away. Gorgei lived to be almost a hundred years old, dying at the age of 98 in 1916. He had moved back to Hungary almost half a century earlier, in 1867 following the compromise that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Gorgei was still a lightning rod for criticism with public opinion set firmly against him. On several occasions he was met with jeers and derision in public. He was appointed to several important positions, but could not take up these jobs due to protests. A group of his supporters were able to lobby so that Gorgey could finally receive his pension, but other attempts to rehabilitate his reputation were rebuffed. Only after his death did emotions begin to subside. Relations and historians took turns trying to answer the question of whether Gorgei had betrayed his homeland. His own brother produced a three volume defense on his behalf. The historian Domokos Kosary spent almost fifty years examining the controversy, producing a two volume study almost 800 pages in length. Both of these, as well as other works exonerated Gorgey. Yet he continued to be a polarizing figure, either seen as a symbol of betrayal or misunderstood patriot.

Artur Gorgei monument in Budapest

Artur Gorgei monument in Budapest (Credit: Skelanard)

Standing Stoic – The Attacks To Come
In 1998 an equestrian statue of Gorgei was placed on Castle Hill in Buda. This was not the first statue of Gorgei in Buda. There had been an earlier one installed prior to World War II. It had been damaged in the Battle of Budapest and the post -war communist government later melted it down. It was rumored to have become part of the material that was used to create the enormous Stalin statue that was subsequently destroyed in yet another Hungarian Revolution, that of 1956. The statue of Gorgei that stands on Castle Hill today shows him on horseback, looking rather stiff and rigid. Perhaps he is bracing himself with stoicism for the attacks on his character that will surely come.

A Measure For Their Dreams – Budapest By The Danube: Heart Of Optimism (Travels In Eastern Europe #27)

There is only one thing to do after arriving in Budapest for the very first time. It is to make your way over to see the Hungarian Parliament Building. I know this from experience as it was late in the afternoon on a sunny day in mid-March when I rushed over to see the structure. As such there was no time to try and take a tour of the interior. That was fine with me because truth be told all I really wanted to do was feast on the ultimate piece of architectural eye candy, a building that brings to mind a confection of the most fantastical kind. No amount of superlatives can aptly describe the Hungarian Parliament building. It is much larger than photos of it are able to capture. Just to walk around the building at a rather brisk pace takes a good twenty minutes. The sheer glamour of this neo-Gothic masterpiece is overwhelming. The beauty and grandeur of the building is one thing, but consider that the Parliament serves a country of only ten million people. It looks like something one would expect to find as the seat of government for a world power. Hungary is only a mid-sized country in east-central Europe, but it obviously has much greater designs.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building (Credit: Ivanhoe)

Historic Convergence – Pulling A City Together
The Parliament is a reflection of how the Hungarians see themselves and their place in Europe. These are people of outsize ambition, who take creativity to its ultimate extreme. This is how they ended up with such a fantastical confection astride the Danube. It is also how they ended up creating a city along both sides of the river front of unsurpassed majesty. The area where Budapest is strung along the Danube brings to mind an old phrase, “the hits just keep coming.” From where I stood in the shadow of the Parliament on the river’s embankment I took in a scene of architectural enchantment that was as much the product of a fairy tale, as it was the work of man. Gazing upriver, across the placid, slate gray surface of the Danube I spotted the unique three-part Margaret Bridge connecting both sides of the city with an island of the same name. Then I looked downriver where the Chain Bridge, that inaugural link between the two sides of what became the same city, stretched across the watery expanse.

The bridge is a historic link, it allowed the lifeblood of Buda and Pest to flow unimpeded into one another. Its centrality to the city’s convergence is without equal in annals of European history, magnetically pulling the two sides together to create Europe’s fastest growing metropolis in the latter half of the 19th century. The Buda Hills across the river from where I stood that day, displayed a series of treasured buildings that any city would be pleased to call its own. I counted at least six church spires, the most prominent of which soared above all, that of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill. There was another set of spires recognizable just below the church. These were part of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Further on was a dome that signaled the top of Buda Castle which spread royal wings beneath it. This panorama of Buda as seen from Pest was so wondrous that I could hardly believe my eyes.

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Rising From Ruins – The Building Of Buda
To think that all this is not the product of prior planning, but many centuries worth of organic growth is mind boggling. Here is a scene of stunning urban perfection that has scarcely been repeated. Descriptions will not do it justice. Taken as a whole, this part of the city as it stands astride the Danube is one of the great wonders of the world, a setting that has no peer, even in the annals of old Europe. The sheer scale of grandiosity on offer along the Danube in Budapest is overwhelming. That makes it hard to imagine that the beautiful scene standing on the Buda Hills has been reduced to a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions in the past. When the Habsburgs took it back from the Ottoman Turks in 1686 and the Red Army stormed it during the winter of 1945, they left a residue of rubble that paradoxically became a foundation for regrowth, rebirth and reconstruction.

Following World War II, what was left of both the Margaret and Chain Bridges lay submerged in the river. Revolutions in 1848, 1919 and 1956 left bullet scared buildings and rising plumes of smoke in their wake, signals of the resistance that lay at the heart of all good Magyars. The embankment I stood upon has been inundated by the Danube too many times to recount, sending parts of Pest to a watery grave. Good men and women laid low by the pessimism of the Magyar mentality have leapt into the dark waters of the Danube in alarming numbers over the past two centuries. Jews had been marched to these river banks and shot by the hundreds in acts of genocidal indifference. Historical fate had subdued this city and its citizens repeatedly. Yet through it all the city rises again and again.

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night (Credit: Noval Goya)

The Will To Splendor – In The Minds Of Magyars
Budapest by the Danube is a sparkling example of triumph over tragedy, the will to splendor, an astounding adherence to national destiny. For all their reputed gloomy cynicism, the heart of every Hungarian must be filled with an abiding optimism to overcome the many misfortunes of history inflicted upon their nation. How else to explain the creation of a capital that is such a showcase of scintillating beauty? Optimism is the eternal answer. Optimism took the grey Danube, spun it into a silvery thread and wove it into a fantasy cityscape of the most furtive imagination. Optimism built a series of unforgettable bridges that transcended nature to connect a city and nation into a greater whole. Optimism touched the sky with steeples that soared from a wellspring of faith. And optimism created a city that is a stunning exposition of the majesty that lives in the heart and mind of every Magyar.

Stealing Away – Repulos Gizi (Airplane Gizi): Hungary’s Queen Of Thieves

Theft is something I often think about when traveling in Europe. Perhaps that is why I have managed to avoid it. I am extremely cautious at public transport stations, always keeping a close eye on my belongings. The same logic goes for when I am onboard either a bus or train. One of my travel mantras is that you can never be too careful. This mindset does not apply to air travel. I usually stow my bags in the overhead compartment without a second thought. This has caused me few problems. I figure if someone can afford to take a flight, then they have little reason to steal a few of my travel guides, an IPod or old laptop.  I had never given much thought to thieves and airplanes until I read about the extraordinary exploits of a Hungarian woman who is best known by her nickname of Repulos Gizi (“Airplane Gizi”). Gizi’s preferred method of travel was by airplane while carrying out numerous thefts that brought her fame and infamy. There is no telling how many passengers sat beside Gizi on planes, unaware that they were traveling with one of the world’s most prolific kleptomaniacs. Even more fascinating is the fact that the woman known as “Airplane Gizi” had little interest in stealing while airborne, that was because she had already done her dirty work beforehand.

Gizella Bodnar - also known as Airplane Gizi

Gizella Bodnar – also known as Airplane Gizi, explains her extraordinary story

The Business Of Theft – Gizi Takes Flight
A few years ago I flew on the now defunct national carrier, MALEV Hungarian Airlines, from Bucharest to Sarajevo by way of Budapest. I have trouble remembering anyone onboard or anything that happened, other than I had to borrow the flight stewardess’ pen to fill out a customs declaration and almost forgot to give it back. She politely reminded me of this as I exited the plane. Both flights were pleasant to the point of being unmemorable. I am quite certain that thousands of passengers had the same experience on MALEV’s short hop flights around Hungary over the years. It is doubtful that they ever suspected or even noticed an unprepossessing lady onboard some of these flights. She would have looked like any other ordinary passenger traveling to see family or conduct business in a provincial city. The latter reason would have been closer to the truth, but the business she conducted was theft and the getaway vehicle was a MALEV airplane.

MALEV - the now defunct Hungarian National Airline

MALEV – the now defunct Hungarian National Airline

The history of Hungary during the 1950’s usually has to do with one of two things, either Stalinist terror or revolutionary upheaval. Overlooked is the fact that the people, with all their flaws, ambitions and impulses continued to act as they always have. Life went on, with all of its banalities, eccentricities and abnormalities. It was during this time that a woman by the name of Gizella Bodnar first came to notice as she began a sixty year career in crime with her first reported robbery. There were two things that made Gizella’s criminal activity so unique. For one thing, she did not commit theft in the pursuit of material wealth or personal gain, but because she felt an uncontrollable urge to do so. In other words she was a kleptomaniac. Secondly, she carried out a remarkable number of thefts by using the domestic flight service of MALEV to fly from one city to another in Hungary. Upon arrival she would break into several residences, steal whatever valuables she could get her hands on before taking a return flight back home, with her booty in tow. Later on she would do this with international flights to cities in Western Europe. It might be said that the flights provided her with “cloud cover” as no one would suspect a woman using domestic flights to abet in habitual theft. Thus, she was given the nickname of Repulos Gizi for her exploits.

Gizella Bodnar (Repulos Gizi -Airlane Gizi)

A legend in her own time – Gizella Bodnar (Repulos Gizi – Airplane Gizi)

Collecting Your Belongings – “Airplane Gizi” Rides The Rails
It could be said that for Gizi the steal was the thrill. She just could not help herself despite being apprehended on multiple occasions and put on trial over twenty times. She ended up serving 16 of the 40 years for which she was sentenced. Gizi said she had developed kleptomania after suffering meningitis as a young child. No scientific link has been proven to exist between the two. She also claimed that her behavior was stress induced. She was a student living in Kassa, Hungary (Kosice, Slovakia), when the city was bombed, precipitating Hungary’s entry into the Second World War. This supposedly set her on a binge of thievery. Whatever the case may be, there is little doubt that Gizi was a chronic thief. Long periods of confinement did nothing to dissuade her from stealing again and again. She became quite famous for her criminal impulses, even penning a memoir, in which she referred to herself as the “Queen of Thieves.”

As she grew older, Airplane Gizi was grounded, more due to her notoriety than infirmity. This did nothing to stop her from engaging in unlawful activities. She was still physically able to carry out larcenous escapades. A couple of years ago, she was apprehended by police at a train station in the town of Bicske, 35 kilometers west of Budapest. The officers found her in possession of 15,000 forints. She was suspected of taking the money from a wallet, sitting on the living room table of a home she had broken into. In the first half of 2015, Gizi was caught robbing a residence in the Burgenland region of eastern Austria, two weeks after disappearing from a nursing home. Later that same year, she was caught hiding inside a closet in the eastern Hungarian town of Hajdúszoboszló. Gizi claimed she was taking shelter from a rainstorm. At the time of her arrest she was a sprightly 89 years old. Airplane Gizi is still alive today, though it is highly unlikely she will take to the air again for another round of breaking, entering and stealing. What is not beyond the realm of possibility, Gizella Bodnar (Repulos Gizi) might get caught once again, making a last grasp to satisfy her urge for theft.