Capital Of The Great Hungarian Plain – Discovering Debrecen: Arrested Development (For The Love of Hungary Part 16)

The remarkable thing about my first visit to Debrecen was that I remembered anything about it at all. For many people, Debrecen can be an entirely forgettable experience. It is not a love at first sight city, more like a one-night stand with a harlot who offers the fleeting promise of passion. My problem with visiting Debrecen had to do with great expectations gone wrong. Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary. As such, those who come for a visit may be forgiven for expecting something more than a Belvaros (Inner city) largely lacking in memorable architecture or atmospherics, especially when compared to the elegant old towns of such Hungarian cities as Gyor, Pecs, Sopron, Szeged and Szekesfehervar. Since most foreign visitors to Debrecen have already been in the western part of Hungary, they probably visited one of those more attractive cities. This leaves an indelible impression upon the senses. Debrecen cannot help but pale in comparison.

The way it was meant to be - Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

The way it was meant to be – Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

Along A Fluid Frontier– At The Mercy Of Others
As a first-time visitor, I wrongly assumed that Debrecen would be much the same as all those other Hungarian cities that had left me starry eyed. I soon discovered that Debrecen is fundamentally different from other Hungarian cities, in many ways reflecting the difference between eastern and western Hungary. It has been my experience that cities tend to develop based on the topography that surrounds them. For instance, the confluence of the Raba, Rabca and Danube Rivers around the city of Gyor defined much of its early development.  Debrecen is not much different in this regard. The city is set out on the fertile featureless flatland of the Great Hungarian Plain. As such Debrecen has plenty of room to sprawl. On my first forays into the city, it seemed to go on in a multitude of directions without any discernible boundary. I felt as though the buildings had been scattered about with little regard for architectural symmetry. Much of this had to do, through no fault of Debrecen’s city administrators across the ages, with topography and history. The former influencing the latter. With no physical barriers anywhere near the city it could develop equally in any direction. Furthermore, the lack of obstacles meant it was also at the mercy of invaders, most prominently during the Ottoman era in Hungarian history from 1526 to 1686.

During those times, Debrecen was situated along a fluid frontier riven by an alarming amount of violence. Such venal activities as plundering, pillaging and slave raiding were commonplace. Low intensity warfare occurred for decades without end. This forced Debrecen into multifaceted deals to retain some degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. At one point, the city was forced to pay simultaneous financial tributes to the Ottoman Sultan, Habsburg Emperor and Prince of Transylvania. It was an unenviable position to be in. Consequently, this situation also affected the city’s spiritual and cultural development. During this period, Protestantism in the form of Calvinism sunk deep roots in the dark and dusty soil.  Roots that would eventually resist the counter-reformation. A visitor will search Debrecen largely in vain for those Baroque Catholic churches that can be found in other Hungarian cities further to the west. This is because for a 160-year period the building of Catholic churches was not permitted anywhere in the city.

Stock market - Horse market near Debrecen

Stock market – Horse market near Debrecen (Credit: Alexander von Bensa)

A Hungarian Frontier Town – In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
Besides Calvinism, the greatest influence on the city’s historical development was the cattle trade which enriched many of its most prominent merchants. These men held vast tracts of land out on the surrounding plain which they would lease to herdsmen and shepherds. Grazing spread across the plain, tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses were fattened up on the grasslands, then driven to market. Debrecen became the center for this trade, which boosted the city’s growth beyond what might have been expected for a city that lacked a river or any other defining topographic feature. In short, Debrecen grew into a large city because economic trade demanded and subsequently enriched it. By its very nature, the grazing industry is a largely nomadic and dispersed activity, thus it not surprising that Debrecen took on many of the qualities associated with a pastoral frontier. Imagine a Cowtown on the Great Plains of the United States such as Abilene or Dodge City, its streets beset with whirlwinds of dust in the summer and quagmires of mud in the spring and autumn. Reports from 19th century travelers, such as the Englishman John Paget, describe Debrecen in such a manner.

Debrecen has been as unlucky in its modern history, as it was in the early modern period. The reason that it lacks in historical architecture is due to warfare. Parts of the city were obliterated or badly damaged by both aerial bombardment and ground fighting during World War II. American bombers leveled its railroad marshalling yards and targeted other industrial infrastructure. A large tank battle on the city’s outskirts between German and Soviet forces occurred in the latter part of 1944. Structures that were rebuilt in its aftermath, the main train station being the most notable example, have no architectural qualities to recommend them other than stolidity, function over form and the use of a kazillion tons of concrete. Debrecen is pockmarked with such communist era monstrosities. Fortunately, it does have a few architectural calling cards that manage to draw tourists to the city, foremost among these is the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom).

Symbol of the city - The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground

Symbol of the city – The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground (Credit: gelledina)

An Architectural Illusion – A Portal Of Protestantism
To say the Great Reformed Church is the main draw for tourism in Debrecen does it a disservice. It is also the city’s most recognizable symbol. Anyone who has visited Debrecen is bound to have seen its classically inspired yellow façade, glowing brightly at the end of Piac Utca (Market Street). Due to its role as a hub of Protestantism in Hungary, Debrecen has been called the Calvinist Rome. This oxymoronic appendage weds together two disparate ideals. The stern rigidity of Calvinist doctrine with the grandeur of Rome. The same could be said for the Great Reformed Church, its splendid twin towered exterior could not possibly be a greater contrast to its austere interior. Upon entering, I questioned whether I had been transported through a portal of architectural illusion. To understand Debrecen, I would first have to understand the Great Reformed Church.

Making Ends Meet – Metro Line 3: Riding The Blue Line Beneath Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 15)

I always wondered what it must be like for Budapestians. A trip all the way across Metro Line 3 (the Blue Line) from one end to the other was on mind. I was sure many people had done it, but none of them were me. This gap in my Hungarian travel experiences was in direct contrast to my continuous usage of the line. My usual daily journey would start at Kobanya-Kispest and end at Ferenc Deak ter. A few times I went a bit further, onward to Nyugati Palyudvar where I would catch trains leaving the railway station located high above the metro. Beyond that, Line 3 was pretty much terra incognita for me. The only exceptions were a couple of times I accidentally traveled on to Lehel ter, one stop down from Nyugati. This only happened because I was not paying attention to the stops. Truth be told, I never really had any reason to go further northward on Line 3 than Nyugati. Much of this had to do with the fact that I relied heavily on guidebooks to decide where to go and what to see. This was especially true on my first several visits to the city, limiting my forays to the northern part of the city.

Beyond Nyugati, the northern stops on Line 3 were not mentioned very often by any of my guidebooks. For the longest time all I really knew about this area was that it went into Ujpest, which means “new Pest”. I figured the entire area must be relatively new and predominantly residential. In my mind, I imagined it as “a place where lots of people live.” I would later discover this to be largely true. It was not always this way. It took Ujpest over 60 years before it grew from village to town and another forty years before it was incorporated into Greater Budapest. The last part of line 3 was constructed in 1980. Ujpest was the Hungarian equivalent of the suburbs, a late bloomer by the standards of a city that soared in population during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

M3 Metro (Budapest) - The Blue Line

M3 Metro (Budapest) – The Blue Line (Credit: Vampeare)

A Passion For Completionism –  The Finished Line
It was around the time of my fifth visit to Budapest that I decided to travel Line 3 all the way from end to end. This was not exactly an arduous undertaking as it only required sitting down for 31 minutes while passing through twenty stations in just ten miles. Line 3 was the longest of Budapest’s three metro lines (now there are four). In the time it takes to watch an average television sitcom it can transport passengers from the southern to northeastern parts of the city or vice versa. I was under no illusions that riding one of the decrepit Soviet style cars that rumbled up and down Line 3 through a dark tunnel would provide me with any great revelations about the city. The only reason for riding Line 3 all the way through was to satisfy a personal passion for completionism.

Doing this would make me a legend in my own mind. I could wow strangers at social gatherings with stories of how I was the only person in South Dakota who had ridden to every metro stop in Budapest. I imagined their looks of incredulity, the whispering campaigns by acquaintances that I was manic and should be medicated. Nothing would make me happier or so I imagined. The idea had only dawned on me after the sudden realization that I had been to every stop on Metro Lines 1 and 2. Line 1 was easily the most appealing of the three from a touristic perspective. It had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its history as the first underground metro line in continental Europe.

With its quaint yellow cars and beautifully tiled stations, Line 1 was an experience in and of itself. It took in a wealth of attractions that were on every tourist’s must-see list. Line 2 (Red Line) competed with Line 1 (Yellow Line) it for the most attractions. It was the only line open at that time which went under the mighty Danube and into Buda. It could drop passengers at the Parliament or opposite it for a stunning view of the glittering fantasia that reflected off the river. Line 2 has the added attraction of being bookended by two of the city’s three main railway stations.  The Yellow and Red Lines get all the publicity, glamor and as a result the lion’s share of infrastructure improvements. Line 3 was ignored by everyone who did not use it on a regular basis.

Less than comfortable class - Budapest Line 3 Metro Car

Less than comfortable class – Budapest Line 3 Metro Car (Credit: Christo)

More For The Masses  – Putting The Public In Transport
Line 3’s unofficial name, Blue Line, could not be more appropriate. It is Blue Collar down to the cold, steel rails it runs along. Line 3 is working class to its core, everything from its start in the gritty post-industrial districts of Kobanya-Kispest to the faded blue carriages which look like the kind of comfort class Leonid Brezhnev would have designed for the proletariat in one of his few inspired moments. The Blue Line is a product of the masses in more ways than just its design and production. It is the work horse of the Budapest metro with a maximum carrying capacity of 800,000 passengers per day. It was carrying approximately 600,000 per day at the time of my end to end journey. That figure seemed to be stretching the limits of what the line could handle.

Daily delays caused by problems with the tracks or cars has become an increasingly common occurrence, as I experienced on innumerable occasions. The carriage would come to a screaming halt, jarring everyone from their metro induced stoicism. This was always preceded by the usual pops, cracks and bangs that made me wonder if the carriage was on the verge of disintegration. After a minute or two of unsettling silence the carriage would begin to trundle forward once again. There were articles in the news about how Line 3 was sorely in need of a renewal that had been promised for many years. My nerves were soothed by the thought that nothing worse than delays ever occurred. This bolstered a false sense of security.

The End Of A Beginning - Ujpest-Kozpont Station on Line 3

The End Of A Beginning – Ujpest-Kozpont Station on Line 3 (Credit: Christo)

The End Of A Beginning – Final Departures
What happened when I finally took my first and only end to end trip on Line 3? Nothing of note. It was just another ordinary day on the Blue Line. There were no delays, no packed carriages and nothing memorable. When I got to the final station at Ujpest-Kozpont I decided to go above ground. This would at least make the trip seem worth more than what it was, checking a box for completionism. I watched as people entered and exited the station, just as preoccupied with their own lives as I was with mine. The station would always be a beginning and an end for Budapestians, but for me it had become the end of a beginning. The end of my first phase of travel on Budapest’s Metro. I had now been to every metro station. It was time to begin something new, that was why the soon to be opened Line 4 (Green List) of the Budapest Metro was next on my list.

A Matter Of Interpretation – Heroes’ Square:  Wonder & Confusion At The Millennium Monument (For The Love of Hungary Part 14)

If I could have traveled back in time to visit the Millennium Monument in Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere) at the turn of the 20th century, it would have surprised me to see just how non-Hungarian the monument was back then. That was because multiple Habsburg Emperors were deemed important enough to be given a place among the colonnaded columns. The statues on display included ones of Ferdinand I, Charles III, Maria Theresa, Leopold II and Franz Josef. The latter statue would have been the most egregious to an informed contemporary observer. Though Franz Josef was still ruling what was then called the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Dual Monarchy) at the time, he had also been the Austrian Habsburg ruler during and after the Hungarian Revolution. Franz Josef had signed off on measures of oppression, such as the execution of 13 Hungarian generals at Arad that would never be forgiven by many Hungarians. Despite such feelings, Franz Josef along with several other of his Habsburg ancestors, had been placed in one of Hungary’s most exalted spaces. This state of statuary affairs would not last. The First World War and its aftermath destroyed the Dual Monarchy, leaving Hungary riven by revolution and the Millennium Monument open to new interpretations.

Changing times - Rally at Heroes' Square

Changing times – Rally at Heroes’ Square in 1939 (Credit: Bruno Pesti/Fortepan.hu)

Time For A Change -From Celebration To Confusion
If I had come back to visit the Millennium Monument in 1920 there would have been no statue of Franz Josef. The communists had taken it upon themselves to destroy it. Most symbols of the old imperial order were banished to the dustbin of history during the six months of communist rule in 1919. The counter-revolutionary Horthy regime would right (quite literally) this historical wrong by commissioning a new statue of Franz Josef. He would reappear transformed. No longer dressed in military garb, instead the former emperor was now portrayed in coronation regalia. The imperial was deemed worthy of promoting since Miklos Horthy was now acting as regent. If I had made a third visit to the Millennium Monument ten years later, I would have seen the recent addition of a National Heroes Memorial cenotaph that commemorated those lost in the Great War as well as the preservation of the Kingdom of Hungary’s old borders that had been greatly reduced by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon.

These changes, like seemingly everything else at the Millennium Monument, were not to last. If I came back a decade and a half later after World War II had ended, the National Heroes Memorial cenotaph was now nowhere to be found. All the statues of Habsburg monarchs had vanished, replaced with indigenous Hungarian heroes. Strangely all the new heroes on display had come from regions that were no longer inside the nation’s borders. Historic Hungary, which the monument was supposed to deify, had undergone massive changes since the monument had been first commissioned. Those changes continued until the communists solidified their hold on power, which would last forty relatively stable, but increasingly stagnant years. The only change of note was the reappearance of the National Heroes Memorial cenotaph in 1956. It had been altered prior to reinstallation. Language about those who died fighting in the World Wars and anything concerning the borders of Historic Hungary had been erased.  Through all the turbulent political changes, the Millennium Monument was still left standing.  Its metaphorical meanings had changed from celebration to confusion.

Getting to know you - Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument

Getting to know you – Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument (Credit: Karelj)

Know Nothings – The Slightest Of Ideas
Of course, I could not travel back in time and judging by all that had happened it was probably a good thing. What I knew of the Millennium Monument’s past had been the product of research from history books and travel guides. Despite the peaceful present, the experience I had at the monument was disconcerting in its own way.  Watching group after group of foreigners snapping photos of the statues left me wondering if they had any idea who these Hungarian heroes were. I was just starting to read a fair amount of Hungarian history, but I would have had trouble identifying several of these historical personages. If I had been asked to give a recitation of their achievements, I would have flunked the test. One of the oddest things about visiting Budapest is that many of the city’s attractions are so grand, so dramatic and so sensational that a visitor feels compelled to snap photos, feign interest and act as though they have a compelling interest in people, events or objects they know nothing about.

I doubt most visitors had the slightest idea of what Lajos Kossuth did other than lead Hungary in the failed revolution of 1848. A few might know from their guidebooks that Ferenc Rakoczi had an entire independence war named after him. They would also have learned that this was a war he had lost. As for Gabor Bethlen, well at least he was a Prince of Transylvania. Though he did not remind me of Dracula, he did look quite devious. And then there was Imre Thokoly, a hero who induced head scratching from everyone except Hungarians. Thokoly’s name was made for verbal butchery by English speakers who pronounced the h which should be silent. I later learned that Thokoly had also made a name for himself opposing the Habsburgs. Thus, most of the statues on the right side of the colonnade had been pro-Habsburg, then they became and stayed anti-Habsburg. Eventually the truth must come out.

In wonder & confusion - Heroes' Square at night

In wonder & confusion – Heroes’ Square at night (Credit: Paul Mannix)

True Heroes – Standing Up To The Test Of Time
The statues on the left side of the colonnade were of Hungarian kings who had been much more successful than those Hungarian heroes who had replaced the Habsburgs on the right side. I found these statues to be impressive, but not nearly as fascinating. Tragically, one of the selling points of Hungarian history and consistent threads that run through it is of resistance, failure, survival and then somehow coming out ahead. Only one of the kings on display fit this narrative, Bela IV. He lost the kingdom and nearly his life to the Mongol Invasion in 1241-1242, but then returned to rebuild and reign for over a quarter century. His name and feats were worthy of a place in this pantheon. True heroes overcome adversity and stand the test of time. The Millennium Monument fits that definition. It has been transformed by regimes both tyrannical and democratic, but still stands in the heart of Budapest for Hungarians and tourists to gaze at in wonder and confusion.

Click here for: Making Ends Meet – Metro Line 3: Riding The Blue Line Beneath Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 15)

Seeing It Her Way – Through The Eyes Of Zsuzanna: Tragedy In Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 12)

It was hard to come to terms with the mockery I witnessed from that one man and his group of friends at the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. At first, I was filled with self-righteous anger. How dare they defile the memory of innocent people murdered in such despicable crimes. Then my anger turned inward, I was ashamed of myself for not speaking up. I doubt it would have mattered to them and might even have provoked further bad behavior. Nonetheless, it would have been a sign of resistance. Perhaps nothing would have stopped the man from engaging in an act that defiled the victims. He and his friends did not understand the magnitude of what took place on this river bank during the Siege of Budapest. This was not just a Hungarian or Jewish tragedy, but a tragedy suffered by all of humanity. The product of a profound moral crisis. This was not just about the victims, the “them”, it was also about “us”.  What human beings are capable of when they sink into the lowest levels of depravity.

What lies beneath - Danube River at Budapest in 1945

What lies beneath – Danube River at Budapest in 1945 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

A Coverup As Bad As The Crime – Watery Graves
Ignorance, indifference, carelessness, each of these less than desirable traits of humanity were on display by the man and his friends. These were, still are and always will be the ingredients that breed hatred. Constant vigilance is needed to keep virulent ideologies at bay. Perhaps those that I witnessed making such a mockery of the memorial would have felt a bit differently about their behavior if they knew the specifics of what exactly had happened on those dark days. I doubt they wanted to know. It is easier to look away or allow the memory to languish. That is an all too human reaction to the inhuman, but it is not so easy to forget something that has been seared into humanity’s collective conscious. The memorial was a powerful place that evoked fear, shame and disgust in me. Its minimalism made it that much more arresting.

The absence of any others sculptures or portrayal of the victims left much to the imagination. Me and my wife to be walked away from the river bank that evening with conflicting emotions. The memorial had left us with a lasting impression, but I wondered what could be done about the ignorance and cynicism that man and his friends had displayed. Perhaps there was a story they could have been told that would have put them in the victim’s shoes, not in a moment of mockery, but in one of disturbing reality. The kind of moment that could shift their attitude forever. If only they could have read some of the accounts of those who witnessed or knew about the murders.

It is hard to imagine innocent civilians being murdered within sight or earshot of other civilians. If the thought of it is disturbing now, it is not hard to imagine just how horrifying it was then. So much in fact that the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party members who were murdering Jews indiscriminately in the streets were thought to be increasing the chances of creating sympathy for the Jews among the city’s ethnic Hungarian population. At least that is what those in charge were worried about. This is what brought hundreds of Jews to the banks of the Danube. The river was a way to conceal the victims bodies, at least until it completely froze over. It was a case where the coverup was just as bad as the crime. The river was used to conceal the evidence.

In memory - Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial

In memory – Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial (Credit: Lisahy)

A Society Gone Mad – Turning A Blind Eye
On October 15th the first murders were carried out along the embankment. Just after sunset, 7:32 p.m. to be precise, the police report shows a “suicide” on the Danube bank. “Suicide” was code for murder of a civilian. For the next one hundred days, murders were carried out night and day in the same area.  There was no holiday from this horror. As a matter of fact, holidays were just as much an occasion for executions as any other days. Evil does not obey the dictates of normal society, instead it warps and degrades them through its intentions and actions. Documentation shows that murders took place at the on Christmas Day, 1944 at the embankment.

While doing background reading on what happened there, I was shocked to discover that in a city of over a million people only about 4,000 Arrow Cross militia terrorized an entire segment of the population with little to no resistance from a million inhabitants of Budapest. Outnumbered on average by two-hundred and fifty to one, the militia was still able to act with impunity. The police, gendarmerie and military largely turned a blind eye. In this case, silence was complicit as well as deadly. The executions were impossible to ignore on the Danube Bank. Daily life continued right up until the Soviets encircled the city in mid-December. People went about their business despite what was happening around them.

First-hand accounts demonstrate an incredible callousness from some civilians. Two women were reported as saying they felt “sorry for the poor people, but maybe it’s just as well, because then they won’t get a chance to take revenge.” Others coveted the belongings left behind by the Jews and were hoping they would not return to claim them. Some civilians were confronted by shocking scenes of barefoot, thinly clothed Jews being marched down frozen streets to the riverbank. When one man asked an Arrow Cross militiaman who the people were that he was leading, the militiaman sarcastically replied, “the Holy family”. Not long thereafter, the rattle of a machine gun announced another mass murder. And so it went on, from the hundreds into the thousands, until one day it ended and not much was left except for the memory of survivors and witnesses.

Zsuzanna Ozsvath - Holocaust survivor

Zsuzanna Ozsvath – Holocaust survivor

A Throbbing Heart – When The River Ran Red
After pages of reading and research I still wonder if there is anything that would cure the ignorance and indifference we witnessed that evening on the banks of the Danube. Education? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Some people never learn or even worse, don’t want to learn or understand. They cannot walk in the victim’s shoes or see through their eyes. If only they could see through the eyes of one girl deep in that deadly winter. The eyes of Zsuzanna Ozsvath, a Jewish girl who survived the murderous maelstrom due to the grace, grit and guile of her nursemaid, Erzsi Fajo.  While hiding out in an apartment house within sight of the Danube, Zsuzanna heard what she described as “popping sounds.”

She carefully made her way to the window and looked out to see “two Arrow Cross men…standing on the embankment of the river, aiming at and shooting a group of men, women and children into the Danube – one after the other, on their coats the Yellow Star. I looked at the Danube. It was neither blue nor gray but red. With a throbbing heart, I ran back to the room in the middle of the apartment and sat on the floor, gasping for air.” Zsuzanna knew that this might soon be her fate. A combination of chance, luck and Erszi made sure she survived. Zsuzanna never could wipe away that memory. As she later recalled, it was “worse than anything I had ever seen before, worse than the most frightening accounts I had ever witnessed.” No one deserves to see such an act of inhumanity, but maybe if some people did they would understand what the Shoes on the Danube Bank stand for.

Click here for: Headed Towards A Confrontation – Heroes Square In Budapest: A Deep Romance (For The Love Of Hungary Part 13)

Standing On The Edge Of An Abyss – Shoes on the Danube Bank (For The Love of Hungary – Part 11)

Strolling along the Danube embankment just before sunset had the potential to be a stunning experience and it certainly did not disappoint. As I looked west from Pest, the sky above Buda was fringed with light clouds beginning to glow in the deep distance. The sun slid down the sky and toward the horizon transforming these clouds into a kaleidoscope of pinks and purples. A few scattered contrails floated free of any other cloud cover. They were in the process of evaporating, mystical tracers that slowly disappeared into the dwindling twilight. The river reflected the sky’s seemingly limitless spectrum, a shimmering palette painted by the forces of nature. On the hills of Buda, traces of the many architectural wonders on offer were being slowly extinguished. Darkness began to close the curtain on the window of wonders created by the most brilliant Magyar minds. The only objects left distinguishable were multiple spires of varying height, medieval missiles shot through the past and into the present. There was a bit of autumn chill in the air, which combined with a light breeze, made the evening unusually evocative.  At that point It was memorable for all the right reasons, until suddenly it became memorable for more menacing ones.

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial (Credit: Nikodem Nijaki)

Stolen Shoes, Stolen Lives – From Desperation to Denigration
Myself and the woman I was soon to marry had begun this evening stroll from Margit Bridge, heading south along the river’s edge. Our plan had been to walk as far as the Chain Bridge. Along the way we happened upon a peculiar section of the promenade. A stretch that was home to one of the most disconcerting memorials in Budapest. A series of sixty pairs of shoes cast from iron were scattered along the embankment. There were shoes of every shape and size, everything from women’s heels to men’s workboats, the most touching were those of children. Some were unlaced, while others looked worn out and the worse for wear. Each pair of shoes represented an extremely disturbing story of life and death on the banks of the Danube. Here was the Holocaust reduced to heels, size nines and rubber soles recreated with an iron constitution. This was not the mountains of shoes to be found in the desperate bins of Auschwitz. This was a monument that evoked the individual over the mass, the neighbor who was not a stranger, a person instead of people. These shoes represented lasting vestiges of those who had been murdered on the banks of the Danube.

Beginning in mid-October 1944 and continuing onward into January of the next year, hundreds upon hundreds of Hungarian Jews were taken to the riverbank. This was a daily occurrence during those progressively colder and darker days. The Jews and many other enemies of fascism were driven down side streets toward the abyss. On the banks of what would become a frozen over Danube, they were forced to take off their shoes and sometimes other items of clothing. They were not asked to hand the items over so much as leave them behind. Handing them over was impossible because their persecutors had their hands full with ammunition and guns. After this, it was all over but the pleading, screaming and dying. This was the way a world ended, not with a whimper but a bullet, to the head or heart.

Plaque at the Shoes on the Danube Bank

Plaque at the Shoes on the Danube Bank (Credit: Tamas Szabo)

A Matter Of Life & Death – Powerful Reminders
Thousands died, while sixty pairs of shoes represent them as an act of remembrance. Shoes have been placed here because they were a matter of life and death, an especially prized item as the war entered its final phase. Some would go so far as killing for them. Trying to acquire decent footwear, especially during one of the harshest winters in living memory was difficult. Civilians wrested boots off dead soldiers or shoes off fellow civilians who had been killed in the chaotic crossfire during the Siege of Budapest. Members of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary’s version of the Nazis) obtained footwear in the most heinous way possible, they committed murder. The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial is set in the concrete promenade, a permanent fixture. The same could not be said for the shoes and boots that the Jews were forced to give up just before being killed. These walked away with their murderers, some of whom wore the footwear of those they had just murdered.

Theft is bad enough, but Arrow Cross members went further. They could have just robbed the Jews and left them shoeless. Instead, their actions were informed by the vilest hatred. They murdered with no conscious for their victims. And not all murdered for shoes, some murdered for no reason at all.  The Shoes on the Danube Bank are a powerful reminder to everyone of what happened in Budapest during World War II. The reason for remembering this horrific history is twofold, to commemorate the victims and to do so in order that it never happens again. And yet something happened at the memorial that beautiful autumn evening that made me wonder if lessons could ever be learned, much less taught.

Close up of the Shoes of The Danube Bank Memorial

Close up of the Shoes of The Danube Bank Memorial (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

The Greatest Shame  – Nothing To Joke About 
While we stood there contemplating the memorial and what it meant, a group of men and women who looked to be in their thirties walked up. They spoke English and were joking among themselves. When they first saw the memorial it gave them pause, it had the same disquieting effect on them as it did on everyone else. Then, after a few moments a man who was part of the group walked up to one of the shoes and tried to stick his foot in it. The others began laughing. The man did this several more times. He was oblivious to the look of horror on our faces, I imagine that everyone else who was a witness to this desecration had the same sense of outrage. The man’s friends snapped a few photos, then burst out laughing. The moment and memorial meant nothing more to them than what they perceived as a little bit of harmless fun. The shoes and those they represented were mocked without a hint of remorse. The group went on without a thought as to what they had done, but that minute has never left my memory. I am quite positive that everyone in the group knew what the shoes represented, but they really did not care.

Click here for: Seeing It Her Way – Through The Eyes Of Zsuzanna: Tragedy In Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 12)

The Re-emergent Revolutionary – Mihaly Tancscis: An Eccentric Iconoclast (For The Love of Hungary – Part 10)

On March 15,, 1848 a wave of popular unrest stirred in Pest as Hungarians came out into the streets and gathered to rally at the National Museum in opposition to Austrian rule. A large group soon took the growing movement westward. They poured over the pontoon bridge that led across the Danube connecting Pest with Buda. Thousands of Hungarians marched up Castle Hill where they proceeded to demand the release of Mihaly Tancsics. Tancsics, a radical activist who supported freedom for the serfs and better conditions for the working class, had been imprisoned at the Jozsef Barracks for over a year. Tancsics had been confined to a room in the barracks after being accused of sedition for the publication of a pamphlet entitled, The Word of the People Is God’s Word. From the Austrian perspective, locking Tancsics up made perfect sense. His ideals were revolutionary in a Hungary that still labored under serfdom, as well as imperial authority.

Mihaly Tancsics - Portrait of a revolutionary

Mihaly Tancsics – Portrait of a revolutionary (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

Falling Asleep On The Job – An Exhausting Revolution
Hungarians had decided they could no longer stomach Austrian rule. The imprisonment of Tancsics was symbolic of the heavy handed Habsburg administration in Hungary. The masses decided to take matters into their own hands. They gained an audience with the Vice Regency Council which ran national affairs. The threat of mob violence swayed the council to release Tancsics. The mood of the masses then turned celebratory. Tancsics was placed in a carriage that traveled through the streets. An adoring public welcomed their newly released hero. He was soon ushered back to Pest. Cheering throngs greeted him every step of the way. A plan was soon hatched for Tancsics to be feted at a performance of the wildly popular play Bank Ban, which was due to be performed at the National Theater that night. He would be the guest of honor. First though, he needed to rest.

Tancsics accepted an offer of temporary quarters. This would allow him to relax after an exhilarating and exhausting day. So exhausted in fact that he never made it to the National Theater that evening. Tancscis overslept and failed to make it to the play. The crowd had been informed beforehand that he would speak. When he was nowhere to be found, they grew increasingly unruly. The famous writer Mor Jokai did his best to speak on Tancsics behalf, but it was not the same. Overnight, Tancsics had been transformed from prisoner to hero. The energetic defiance of authority that his ideals provoked was right in line with revolutionary values. Yet the success or failure of the revolution would be based on more than one man or one glorious day. March 15th was a spectacular start, but freeing Tancscis was a relatively easy task. Freeing Hungary from Austrian rule would turn out to be much more difficult.

Mihaly Tansics - In prison during the 1860's

Mihaly Tancsics – In prison during the 1860’s (Credit: Karoly Jakobey)

Re-emergent Revolutionary – Power Without Promise
Tancsics’ popularity rose to unsurpassed heights in the wake of his release. This helped him gain election to the newly formed Hungarian Parliament. When the Revolution collapsed in 1849, Tancsics found himself a wanted man. Unlike Lajos Kossuth and others who fled the country in exile, Tancsics went into hiding. He was convicted to death in absentia, but several years later re-emerged. Soon he was back to his old revolutionary ways. On March 15,, 1860 Tancsics could be found attending a commemoration of the events that occurred on that same day in 1848. He was arrested once again. Soon he was back in confinement at the Jozsef Barracks where he would spend the next six years of his life. When he did finally gain his freedom for a second time, it was not because of revolution, but compromise. The creation of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary set in motion a golden era for Hungary. Tise era would turn out to be much less revolutionary than Tancsics had hoped for.

In 1869 Tancsics was elected once again to Parliament. In an era filled with renewed hope, the future looked promising. That promise did not extend to radicals such as Tancsics. He was the main advocate for transforming Hungary with an early version of what would today be known as socialism. He advocated for universal suffrage, an idea that was one hundred and twenty years ahead of its time in Hungary. He was for proscribing the power of landowners which would have to wait until the Communists came to power following the Second World War. His idea to separate church and state was anathema in a country whose identity came partly from its religious heritage. Tancscis also promoted equal rights for all, which was nothing more than a distant dream at this point in Hungarian history. Such utopian idealism failed to connect with a country undergoing rapid development. Socialism was decades away from coming to fruition in Europe and even further than that in Hungary. Instead, the Kingdom was ruled by an aristocratic elite. The major political change brought about by industrialization was the rise of nouveau riche capitalists who would come to haunt the circles of power.

Chasing ghosts - Tancsics utca Castle District in Buda

Chasing ghosts – Tancsics utca Castle District in Buda (Credit: Antal Kotnyek)

Ideas Before Their Time – Sacrifices Worth The Suffering
When Tancsics’ term expired in 1872, he began to steadily move away from politics. His eyesight had been irreparably harmed by his time in prison. This disability did nothing to stop him from continuing an intense study of one of his greatest passions, Hungarian linguistics. Tancsics had become something of an eccentric iconoclast in his later years. A man who ended up largely alone because his ideas did not fit the age in which he lived. He was a fervent ideologue, a man of unyielding principles who believed his sacrifices were worth the suffering. Though he was no longer involved in politics he continued to write and publish, paying out of his own pocket for the publication of his autobiography. Such efforts brought him to the brink of insolvency.

Tancsics ended up dying impoverished in 1884, but he was not forgotten. His body was laid to rest in Kerepesi Cemetery, a national shrine. In 1948, with the ascendancy of communism he was back in vogue, though it is doubtful he would have agreed with their monstrous brand of socialism. Exactly a hundred years after his famous release from the Jozsef Barracks, Tancsics’ name was given to the same street in the Castle District where the barracks were located. Twenty years later, the statue of Tancsics standing just outside the Vienna Gate (Becsi kapu) was unveiled. Fitting memorials to a great Hungarian. A man who should be better known, if not for his name, than his ideas.

The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Budapest is incredible and not just for its architecture. The fact that there is anything still standing atop the hill is either a miracle or a powerfully encouraging sign of Hungarian resiliency, depending upon one’s perspective and system of belief. The Hill has been riven time and again by centuries of warfare. Just about every medieval and modern weapon has been used against it. From catapults to cannons, arrows to harquebuses, arsenals of weaponry have been used to break the will of those defending this limestone plateau. Innumerable sieges and counter-sieges have taken place, to the point where besiegers often end up becoming the besieged. And after all the bombs and bullets have been expended, Hungarians have still managed to claim Castle Hill as their own. I can think of no greater example of staying power.

A shell of itself - Castle Hill in Buda 1945

A shell of itself – Castle Hill in Buda 1945

Lots of War & A Little Peace – Deconstructing History
To get an idea of just how traumatic the history of Castle Hill has been, start with numbers. By one count, since the Mongol invasion in 1241 through the end of World War II in 1945, there have been eighty-six different times Castle Hill was ravaged by warfare. In other words, on innumerable occasions it was left in ruin. That number equates to an average of one cataclysm every eight years. With this kind of combative past, it is a wonder that any buildings are still left standing atop this stricken plateau. Yet a multitude of architectural wonders rise proudly on Castle Hill today. This speaks to the long period of peace that has occurred since the end of World War II. It has now been 73 years since a shot was fired in warfare atop Castle Hill. No one could have known that when the guns fell silent on February 13, 1945, ending the Red Army’s victorious siege of Buda, that this would conclude seven centuries of warfare. At least for now.

To the naked eye of tourists, all those withering assaults on Castle Hill might seem to have disappeared without leaving so much as a trace. A closer look reveals the ghosts of warfare elegantly hidden behind fashionable facades. The most noticeable traces can be discerned by a probing eye coupled with an investigative intellect. Armed with foreknowledge of the various iterations that were built to imitate the past, a visitor can see the hints of a deeper history exposed in plain sight. A good example of this are the many deliciously colored coated Baroque houses lining the Castle District’s streets. These Baroque beauties sport nary a bullet hole, then again looks can be deceiving. Each of these houses were elegantly reconstructed after the Second World War. Sources indicate that when the Siege of Buda ended, only five of the houses left on Castle Hill were still habitable. Due to the extensive damage and exorbitant cost, reconstruction was not completed in the area until the 1980’s. The wartime destruction did have one unintended benefit, many elements of Gothic and Renaissance architecture were unearthed and then incorporated into the reconstructions.

Bullet holes in Buda's Castle District - War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Bullet holes in Buda’s Castle District – War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Lack Of Defense – A Monumental Reminder
As thorough a reconstruction as the buildings on Castle Hill have undergone, there are still scars of war in the form of bullet holes to be found. Ironically, the most prominent of these is located at the former Ministry of Defense building where Szinhaz utca runs into Disz ter. This rather non-descript, neo-Baroque styled building stands halfway between Buda Castle and Matthias Church. Tourists rushing back and forth between those two splendid structures often overlook the war damaged building. They fail to notice the monumental reminder of warfare confronting them. Yet the building is pockmarked with unmistakable evidence of the siege. It offered a poignant moment for me when on my first visit to it. I ran my hand across a stone wall and dug a finger into one of the gaping bullet wounds. Here was a tangible trace of gunfire from either a Soviet or German weapon. It was the ultimate outcome of an ideological struggle between fascism and communism, an outcome that spit itself out the barrel of a gun.

The bullet that made this large indention, like tens of thousands of other bullets fired in the Castle District, was meant to maim or kill. Instead, it struck stone, leaving an unforgettable impression in a future age.  An age of peace and prosperity that belonged to another world, the one in which I was lucky enough to now live. This present world had hardly anything in common with the world of war which had transmitted this bullet hole to me. I have never felt so close and so far from war as when I dug my finger into the lasting remnants of that cataclysm.

A new coat of paint - The Castle District today

A new coat of paint – The Castle District today (Credit Elsa rolle)

An Age, An Idea, An Empire – Dying at the Hands of the Next
The building’s integrity as a still standing, non-reconstructed monument to the fire and fury of the apocalyptic siege of Buda is now threatened by a government planned reconstruction. Last time I visited, fences kept visitors away from the building’s walls. Nice and neat, elegant and classy might soon replace the power of real that resides in this place. If the walls are redone, if the memory of war is erased, then the only reminders of Castle Hill’s destructive history will be confined to hidden niches or buried beneath a thousand cobblestones. What will be lost is not just evidence of one siege, but a connection to all the conflicts that have plagued this magnificent plateau’s past.

There is something about seeing the actual place where hellish events happened that causes a person to contemplate the horrors of war. The thought of what it must have been like to fire a gun or hide from a hail of bullets, to kill or be killed, a hundred thousand times over, that can be enough to make the most courageous person recoil at the idea of using combat to settle affairs of state and ideology.  For the course of empire or the pursuit of power, that was the way eighty-six worlds ended atop Castle Hill. In that maze of medieval streets, one age or idea or empire died at the hands of the next. And it kept going on and on and on, until 704 years of history and misery came to a halt in 1945. Let us hope it never happens again. The history of Castle Hill shows that it will.

Click here for: A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

The Wekerle Estate – Transylvania In Kispest (For The Love of Hungary – Part 3)

Transylvanianism is the kind of quixotic word that sounds like something related to paranormal activity. After first seeing the word my imagination began to run wild with a plethora of bizarre suppositions concerning just what it might mean. Perhaps it was an academic pursuit where all things Transylvania would be examined in detail and the studious sort could procure an undergraduate degree in “the land beyond the forest” (the root word’s literal meaning). Or maybe the word was some sort of strange affliction caused by contact with mysterious counts who double as vampires on the night shift. Another idea was that the word stood for a populist political movement to make Transylvania an independent nation. It turned out that all my theories were wrong. The word was an idea, unique to its time. This idea was largely the brainchild of a famous ethnic Hungarian architect, Karoly Kos (Kos Karoly in the Hungarian order of names) and came about after Hungary’s borders were trimmed to exclude Transylvania following the First World War.

Transylvanianism was controversial at the time because its basis involved an acceptance of Romanian rule over Transylvania. Kos believed that ethnic Hungarians should work within the existing system to promote their interests, rather than call for the old borders to be reinstituted. While Kos’ idea is now largely part of the past, his legacy lives on in an unlikely architectural project. Kos helped construct a little bit of Transylvania in an area that is now part of Hungary’s capital city. This physical representation is something that can still be seen and enjoyed in one of the least visited areas of Budapest. The fact that it stands hundreds of kilometers west of Kos’ beloved Transylvania, makes it that much more fascinating.

Beyond all expectations - Transylvania by way of Kispest

Beyond all expectations – Transylvania by way of Kispest (Credit: toldym)

Opposites Connect – A Splendid Outlier In Budapest
I first discovered Transylvania not in the dark forests of the Apuseni Mountains or among the craggy peaks of the Fagaras, instead I found it confronting me in Kispest, the gritty 19th district of Budapest. Kispest is just about the last place one would expect to be reminded of Transylvania. The district is working class to its core. The resident’s faces are as cracked as its sidewalks. This is a place that has more in common with the 1980’s than the 21st century. The apartment blocks are aging badly, there is a sheen of grime coating anything related to public transport and the citizens have a perpetually dour look frozen on their faces. In other words, Kispest is a place serious about its decrepitude. Scratch beneath the surface though and glimmers of post-communist Hungary soon become apparent. There are fine middle-class homes, shiny car dealerships and a shopping mall that pulses to the rhythms of consumerism and mass consumption.

And then there is the Wekerle Estate (Wekerletelep – named for two-time Hungarian Prime Minister Sandor Wekerle whose government supported its construction). On the surface, such words as Kispest and estate would seem to not have anything in common, but here they do. That is one reason the Wekerle Estate is worth a look. Opposites have not so much attracted, as they have connected here. The Estate stands as a splendid outlier amid the wasted vestiges of the old proletarian ideals that were swept away before the tide of history in 1989. At the Wekerle estate one can find what Kispest could have been, rather than what it was turned into. The estate is a place where style and substance are combined to create a towering achievement no more than three stories high and all the better for it. The scale matters less than a certain sensibility that pervade this remarkable place. The Wekerle Estate consists of 1,007 houses containing over 4,400 apartments. All have an architecturally communal tinge with stylistic elements of Art Nouveau and above all Transylvanian.

Style & substance - Gate into the heart of the Wekerle Estate

Style & substance – Gate into the heart of the Wekerle Estate (Credit: rlevente)

A Garden City– Grown With Folkore
Imagine a village hidden among the urban, a garden city grown to guard against the excesses of modernity, folk architecture blended with domestic living space. The architectural style on offer at the Wekerle Estate emphasizes sharp angles, gables and turrets. An aesthetic appealing slice of Transylvania. The estate was the work of as many as fifteen different architects and engineers with Kos playing the lead role. Construction started prior to the outbreak of World War I and continued up to the mid-1920’s. At that time there was no longer money to complete this vision of Transylvania sprouting up on the fringes of Budapest. Kos is the man most associated with the estate, as he should be since it was his vision which lay at its core. Kos Karoly Square is an oasis of nature surrounded by exquisitely folk inspired structures. Beyond the square, tree-lined streets radiate outward. These streets are lined with dwellings that represent the same inspired style. The development could house up to 20,000 people.

Everything in the Estate was built with the goal of creating an agreeable living space, where people could live in the city, but feel as though they were still in a village. This was of particular interest to the tens of thousands who had moved to Budapest from the countryside in the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, Hungary was transformed from a rural to a predominantly urban society. The hope was that the Wekerle estate would help these economic migrants keep a connection to the land and also their fellow man. Here was an idea of the communal and collective without the loss of individuality. At the same time, the Wekerle estate represented a physical embodiment of Transylvania. And Karoly Kos was the greatest exponent of that place as an aesthetic ideal.

Living Legacy - Karoly Kos in the Wekerle Estate

Living Legacy – Karoly Kos in the Wekerle Estate (Credit: Mark Ahsmann)

Living Legacy – An Idea Ahead Of Its Time
At the center of the Wekerle Estate stands Kos Karoly Square and at the center of the Square stands a statue of the man himself. It is a fitting tribute to his legacy. Kos would live out his life in Kolozsvar (Cluj in present day Romania), the largest city and cultural capital of Transylvania. He worked hard to advance the idea of Transylvanianism throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. This policy of moderation was not in tune with the Hungarian desire to recover the prewar Kingdom of Hungary’s “lost lands”. Living in peaceful coexistence with Romanians meant more to Kos than going to war, but hotter heads prevailed. Northern Transylvania was re-occupied by Hungary through an alliance with Nazi Germany, but that alliance led to greater losses, including Transylvania forever. Oddly enough though Kos died in 1977, his ideal of peaceful coexistence has been largely realized in Transylvania as part of a different entity, the European Union. In that respect his legacy lives on, just as it does at the Wekerle Estate in Kispest.

Click here for: A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

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

My visit to Wenckheim Palace brought with it sadness. The palace’s state of decay was too obvious to ignore. There was a tragic beauty in the cracked and faded ochre exterior. In places, the palace looked moments away from a state of semi-ruin. Rooms were largely vacant, once lavish furnishings had long since vanished along with the aristocrats and servants who once filled these gilded chambers with the passion of life. The thought that the palace was soon to be restored was heartening, but no amount of restoration would bring back its most glorious era. The fact that there was almost no information about those who once lived and died in this dream palace was heart wrenching. I saw history in stone everywhere, and very little human history anywhere. The stories of innumerable lives had been lost to history or so I thought.

A Noble Encounter - Wenckheim Palace

A Noble Encounter – Wenckheim Palace

Noble Encounters – Between The Woods & The Water
On July 15, 2018 I published a post on this blog entitled, The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One). The post talked about the famed Catholic Bishop of Gyor, Vilmos Apor, who had done so much to protect Jews during the Holocaust in Hungary. Apor had been tragically murdered near the end of the war while trying to protect women from being raped by Red Army soldiers. The day after I published the post I received the following reply from ATTICUS (a regular commenter on my posts): “see: http://ceupress.com/book/patrick-leigh-fermor for account of meeting between Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bishop Apor’s brother, Baron Gabor Apor, in Transylvania in 1934.”

ATTICUS turned out to be Michael O’Sullivan, a retired English Literature professor who had just published, “Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania”, the book for which he provided the link. I already owned a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, which I had yet to read. It was this volume that contained the material which formed the basis for O’Sullivan’s book. In 1933-34, Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. This journey led him to write two books over a half century later that quickly became classics of the travel genre. In the second one, Between The Woods and The Water, Fermor documented his journey across Hungary and Transylvania. He had spent several months staying with various aristocrats while experiencing their way of life. Little did Fermor realize it at the time, but this way of life was about to be swept away by the whirlwind of war.

A Ray Of Light – A People & Palace Renewed
I immediately began searching for O’Sullivan’s book, but it was not yet available for purchase in the United States. Thus, I resolved to buy it when I traveled to Budapest in mid-August. In the meantime, I began to read Between The Woods and The Water. I also began searching for reviews of O’Sullivan’s book. I found an excellent one online in the English language journal, Hungarian Review. While reading a review of the book my pulse quickened as I came across the following sentence, “In Mr O’ Sullivan’s pages we watch again the game of bicycle polo at Count József Károly and Ferenc Mária Wenckheim’s castle, after which PLF found himself dining with a Habsburg Archduke.” This anecdote illuminated a bit of Wenckheim Castle’s human history. A ray of light had been cast on the world of Wenckheim Palace which I had wrongly assumed would forever be hidden from me by a perpetual shadow. It gave me hope that I might learn much more about the interior life of that fabulous palace.  It took every bit of willpower I could muster to avoid jumping ahead in Between The Woods and The Water to read about Fermor’s experience at Wenckheim. I eagerly read a quarter of the book before Fermor arrived at Wenckheim Palace by catching a ride with a couple of nuns.

Fermor had been told earlier in his trip by a cousin of Weckenheim Palace’s owners that “it was a strange house, but we’re fond of it.” This was a spot-on description. Fermor eloquently describes his first impressions of the palace as a “vast ochre-colored pile…there were pinnacles, pediments, baroque gables, ogees, lancets, mullions, steep slate roof, towers with flag flying and flights of covered stairs ending in colonnades of flattened arches. Great wings formed a courtyard and, from a terrace leading to a ceremonial door, branching and balustraded steps descended to a sweep.” Reflecting on the day of my own visit, much of Fermor’s description still applied, minus a flag flying. The courtyard where Fermor, Count Joszi and four others played a fierce game of bicycle polo was still intact. I suddenly had visions of the soon to be renewed palace holding reenactments of bicycle polo matches. Of course, I was thinking of historical accuracy rather than visitor safety.

A Fresh Light - Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Micheal O'Sullivan

A Fresh Light – Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Micheal O’Sullivan

Notable Exceptions – Fashion & Frivolity’s Final Fling
Count Joszi and his wife, Countess Denise (as Fermor refers to her in his book), were living a life most people of that time could only dream about. They were products of an intermarriage, first cousins long before they were husband and wife. According to Countess Denise they should have been raving lunatics by the laws of genetics. These types of familial/marital ties were the rule, rather than the exception in many aristocratic families. They observed quixotic customs and habits that had become antiquated elsewhere. Fermor watched as Count Joszi took long, elegant draws from an antiquated water pipe known as a chibook. The pipe had long since fallen out of fashion in most parts of Europe. This lasting vestige of eastern exoticism fascinated Fermor, who soon joined in.

Much of what Fermor witnessed at Wenckheim Palace was an anachronism in action with one notable exception. He recalled how Countess Denise’s sister, Cecile, suddenly announced that she must leave for Budapest. Fermor followed Count Joszi and others out to a field where Cecile boarded a plane. The pilot spun the propeller to start the plane. Soon thereafter the pilot and Cecile took flight, heading westward to Budapest. This was a riveting example of technology entering an entirely different world, one that had more in common with the 19th rather than the 20th century. It would be exactly a decade later when more many more planes appeared in the skies above eastern Hungary. These would be carrying bombs rather than passengers. Fermor’s book acts as one of the final witnesses to a land and people on the cusp of transformational change. Fermor had no idea what was to come at the time of his visit. This life of frivolity and fashionable excess would soon come to an end, but as Fermor’s remarkable writing shows, it was good while it lasted. I expect that O’Sullivan’s book will make it last that much longer.

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

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

A Feat of Imagination - Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod

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

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

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

Portal to another world - Wenckheim Palace

Portal to another world – Wenckheim Palace

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

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

An empty dress - Wenckheim Palace

An empty dress – Wenckheim Palace

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

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