Fanaticism Never Felt So Good– Marton Fuscovics: Euphoria & Misery In Unequal Measure

Two weeks, Rome To Geneva. It sounds like a tourist junket or a fabulous vacation. The distance covered in kilometers is relatively slight, the distance traveled by my favorite tennis player might as well have been from the Mariana Trench to the moon. In the space of a fortnight my outlook on Marton Fucsovics’ 2018 season went from bleak to euphoric. This is what it means to be more than a fan.  When your hopes and dreams ride on match results from half a world away, that is either pathetic or fantastic. Perhaps it is a little bit of both depending on one’s level of desperation. Fanaticism knows no bounds. It is infused with passion, an uncontrollable emotion. And it blows everything, either good or bad, out of proportion.

On the rise - Marton Fucsovics in Geneva

On the rise – Marton Fucsovics in Geneva (Credit Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

A Failure To Qualify –  The Fall In Rome
My vicarious journey from Rome to Geneva with Marton Fucsovics started with despair and desperation. I had dark forebodings soon after the main draw of the Italian Open was released. I scrutinized it for many minutes, searching in vain for Fucsovics. He was nowhere to be found. This was difficult for me to comprehend. How could he pass up a chance to play one of the most important tournaments of the year? He needed every ranking point he could get to maintain his ranking at #60. Perplexed by his absence, I could not understand why he would skip the tournament. It turned out that I was looking in the wrong place for his name. I finally found him in the qualifying draw. This was the first time in 2018 he had played the qualifying round at any tour event.

Qualifying is difficult at the best of times for those players who have finally made the leap to main draw entry. In this case, just to make it into the main draw Fucsovics would have to win two matches. And even if he won these matches they would not provide him with any ranking points. His first match would be against an Italian I had never heard of, Filippo Baldi. Baldi’s ranking was so low at #370 that he had to be given a wild card just to play in the qualifying. He had never beaten any player in the top 150. Such an opponent would usually signal a victory for Fucsovics. The main threat Baldi presented was that he would be playing on home ground, at his nation’s most prestigious tennis tournament. This factor could not be overlooked. The Italian tennis fan base is known to be raucous, especially at the Italian Open. Just ask Bjorn Borg who became so flustered in the 1978 Italian Open Final against Italy’s favorite son, Adriano Panatta, that he threatened to walk off the court.

Fucsovics was likely to face a tough match against Baldi. The Italian did not disappoint. The match was as just about as close as it possibly could be. They split the first two sets in tiebreakers before Baldi prevailed 7-5 in the third. Fucsovics had nothing to be ashamed of. He fought hard in an environment where his opponent was an overwhelming crowd favorite. Despite his effort, the loss still stung. A fanatic such as myself spends an inordinate amount of time hoping for the best while imagining the worst. My fear was that Fucsovics’ ranking would plummet come June and July when he was due to defend an inordinate amount of ranking points from the previous year. How was he going to cover those points? Fucsovics began answering that question eight days later when he took the court in Geneva.

A Dream Come True - Marton Fucsovics becomes the first Hungarian since 1981 to win a title on the ATP Tour

A Dream Come True – Marton Fucsovics becomes the first Hungarian since 1981 to win a title on the ATP Tour (Credit: Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

Sinking Heart & Soaring Spirit – Rising From The Ashes
My heart sank when I first saw the draw for Geneva. Fucsovics’ had drawn the second seed, a Spaniard by the name of Gullermo Garcia-Lopez ranked #36 in the world. This is what happens in a lower level tour event when a player is not ranked high enough to garner a seed. Players such as Fucsovics have as good a chance to draw a top player, as they do a qualifier. Judging by his form it would have been a stretch to predict victory. Predicting a rout in his favor would have been lunacy until the improbable happened. Fucsovics destroyed the Spaniard, only losing three games in the process. This was not so much winning as it was dominating. He then managed to win his next match with American Frances Tiafoe in straight sets. At this point I was satisfied. Fucsovics had made it to the quarterfinals, matching his best showing – a quarterfinal in Munich – of the clay court season.

His next opponent would be the toughest yet, a favored son of Switzerland, three-time Grand Slam tournament champion, Stanislaus Wawrinka. Fucsovics’ lone advantage was that Wawrinka had been nursing an injury earlier in the year and his level of play had dropped. Conversely, Wawrinka was also the two-time defending champion. He was heavily favored to win the match. Predictions are nothing more than opinions built on past performance. In this case, Wawrinka’s past play turned out to mean nothing. Fucsovics started slowly, losing the first two games to Wawrinka, Then, as if by magic his play soared. Astonishingly, he would only lose two more games over the rest of the match. He proceeded to win twelve of the fourteen games on his way to a surprise victory.

Marton Fucsovics - 2018 Geneva champion

Marton Fucsovics – 2018 Geneva champion (Credit: Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

On The Verge Of Reality – Dreams Dawning

This result had my head swimming with thoughts of what might come next. Everything now seemed possible. If Fucsovics could dominate one of the world’s best players, then he was surely capable of winning the title. This idea had me imagining great things for Fucsovics. At one point, I envisioned him winning a Grand Slam title. The definition of a fanatic is one who imagines his hero winning a Wimbledon crown after a quarterfinal victory in Geneva. I am certain Fucsovics and his coach, Attila Savolt, would have none of this. For tennis pros, it is always crucial to stay in the moment and concentrate on the business at hand. A fanatic such as myself does not adhere to that rule. Almost immediately, I began to study the rankings to see how much Fuscovics would rise depending on if he won or lost in the semifinals or final.

This was a golden opportunity for Hungary’s best player to possibly win a championship. Paradoxically, the closer Fucsovics got to that goal the more relaxed I became. Everything he did in Geneva after the quarterfinals was a bonus. He was now in position to cushion his ranking with a good showing.  Saturday dawned with a renewed sense of hope. That hope nearly expired when Fucsovics went down a set to Steve Johnson, one of the few Americans who excels on clay courts. Fucsovics proceeded to win a close second set, then dominated in the third, winning 6-1. He was now through to the final, the first male player from Hungary to make it this far in over three decades. After years of toiling away on the tour he was one match from a career defining victory. I could hardly believe it. There is a feeling of unreality that sweeps over a fanatic when one of their wildest dreams is on the verge of being realized. Very few times in life or sports do dreams come true, the final in Geneva presented such an opportunity.

In The Zone – Achieving Total Confidence
In truth, I could hardly believe this was happening. The terrible low of Fucsovics’ qualifying loss in Rome seemed to have never happened. I was ignoring the fact that this loss might be the reason for Fucsovics play in Geneva. In the final, he dominated the match against German Peter Gojowczk. Fucsovics was in the zone, a heady place of zen-like calm where the player can do no wrong. Time evaporates, the fear of failure ceases to exist and total confidence is achieved. One of several examples of this in the final was his first serve. It was lethal. Fucsovics won 91% of the points on his first serve. His return game was nearly as good. He won exactly half his return points. This added up to a 6-2, 6-2 victory. Game, set and championship to Fucsovics.

This was his first tour level title, but for Hungarian tennis it was much than that. It broke a title drought for Hungarians on the men’s tour stretching all the way back to Balazs Taroczy, when he won in 1982 at Hilversum. Hungary would also have its first player ranked in the top 50 since Taroczy. Fucsovics would jump to #45 when the rankings were released a day after the final. His career is now on a different trajectory. Winning the Geneva title also help him avoid having to play qualifying for the rest of the year. The title has set me off on another round of wild imaginings, even though I know expectations must be tempered. Fucsovics’ career will always be a work in progress. That is the way professional tennis operates. One week the depths of despair, the next winning a long hoped for title. The past two weeks have been a wild ride, euphoria and misery in unequal measure. Euphoria has won out…for now. This is what means to be a fan of Marton Fucsovics. Fanaticism never felt so good.

An Age Old Problem – Hungary’s Demographic Die Off

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

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

Hungary - Population Decline 2006 - 2017

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

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

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

Population of Hungary from 1910 -2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neolog Synagogue in Szombathely - As seen from Bathyany Square

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

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

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

Memorial at entrance to Szombathely Ghetto

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

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

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

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

Holocaust Memorial in Szombathely

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

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

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

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.