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: 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

The Shimmering Citadel – Gyula Castle: Last Of Its Kind (Part Two)

The two-hour journey from Debrecen to Gyula that seemed more like ten, came to a sudden end when we suddenly arrived at Gyula. The southern reaches of The Great Hungarian Plain did not end here, but Gyula was so charming, elegant and relaxing that it gave the illusion of an entirely different world. The Belvaros (City Center) was clean swept and tidy, the colorful exteriors of its buildings emanated an aesthetic of vibrancy. The place felt alive, this was quite the contrast to the endless void we had just crossed. Gyula was the essence of quaint, looking as though it had skipped a turbulent 20th century marked by calamity and regress. In truth, Gyula had also suffered grievous wounds during that time, most prominently from that bane of modern Hungarian history, the Treaty of Trianon.

A New Frontier - Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Stranded Along The Border
A large part of my years long procrastination in waiting to travel to Gyula, was due to one thing, its location. A mere four kilometers separated Gyula from the border with Romania. It had not always been this way, Gyula was left stranded on the frontiers of Hungary by geopolitical events over which it had no control. Only a hundred years before, Gyula had been economically connected with cities north, south and east of it which were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Nagyvarad (Oradea, Romania) and Arad were approximately 70 kilometers away. Temesvar (Timisoara, Romania) was almost as close to Gyula as Szeged. Gyula had been part of this economic orbit until suddenly it was cut off. The Hungarian-Romanian border solidified on June 4, 1920 when the post-war peace treaty was signed at the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles. The ramifications were felt most acutely seventeen hundred kilometers away in places such as Gyula, whose entire economic orientation was forced westwards.

Whereas before Trianon, Gyula had been within the economic sphere of five cities, after the treaty went into effect it was left close to only two, nearby Beckecsaba and Szeged. Furthermore, it was now at the very edge of Hungary, along an insecure frontier where dangerous grievances seethed. Railway connections were severed, vital markets suddenly cut off and centuries old commercial connections thrown into chaos. Traveling north, south or east meant crossing a hard border into less than friendly territory. The effects caused of this border realignment were vast. Gyula struggled to adapt. The interwar period also brought a blow in prestige to Gyula. The administrative seat of the country was moved to the faster growing Beckescsaba. Gyula was now becoming an afterthought. Something of which it has largely remained since that time.

Reflective qualities - Gyula Castle

Reflective qualities – Gyula Castle

Besieged From On High – A Castle Falls
A few minutes after entering Gyula we were approaching its famous castle. My first view of it was striking. A red brick Gothic era creation set against a winter sky airbrushed with thin clouds. A large pond, fringed by atmospherically placed weeping willows, fronted the castle entrance. The trees and castle reflected off the pond’s placid surface. Looking down at the pond was just as enchanting as looking up. The castle was transformed by its liquid reflection into a dreamlike image, a shimmering citadel spectacularly surreal. Historically, water had been more than just a part of the scenery in Gyula. What water still exists presently around the castle is for public enjoyment and aesthetic appeal rather than as a defensive barrier. The castle had once been surrounded by a large moat. This watery barrier was substantial, measuring 30 meters in length and 5 meters in depth.

In 1566 an Ottoman army, 30,000 strong, surrounded the castle. They outnumbered the defenders by a ratio of at least 10 to 1. The castle’s Hungarian commander, Laszlo Kerecsenyi, had been appointed by the Habsburgs due to his prior success in fighting the Turks. His martial prowess was beyond reproach, but he and the castle’s garrison faced insurmountable odds. When the Turks managed to take one of the castle’s towers the situation turned dire, as enemy fire now rained down on the defenders. It is a tribute to Kerecsenyi’s leadership skills that the defenders managed to hold out for 63 days, twice the average length of time the Turks usually needed to conduct a successful siege. Nonetheless, a surrender was negotiated in early September. This allowed the castle to remain largely intact. The surrender was much less accommodating to Kerecsenyi and his soldiers. Despite promises of safe passage, almost immediately after surrendering they were imprisoned or executed. The Turks then proceeded to occupy Gyula and the surrounding area for one-hundred and twenty-nine years.

Ottoman Traveler - Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary

Ottoman Traveler – Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary (Credit: Globetrotter19)

Venetian Gyula – A Momentary Image
One famous Turkish traveler left a fascinating anecdote of his impressions while visiting Gyula during the 17th century. In 1663-1664 the Ottoman polymath, diplomat and obsessive traveler Evilya Celebi visited Hungary. Celebi recorded for posterity his impressions of Gyula in a travelogue known as the Seyahatname (Book of Travel). He compared Gyula to Venice because of the marshy terrain, remarking that it was a strange sight to see residents traveling between houses, gardens and mills along watercourses. This anecdote is corroborated by engravings from that era. Celebi would be hard pressed to recognize anything from that time in Gyula today other than the castle. The mosques, madrasas and Turkish baths were all wiped out in the half century after his visit.

The castle outlasted Celebi and the Ottomans, which judging by the fact that it was the only one of its type left on the Great Hungarian Plain made it worthy of note. I could not help but feel sadness upon learning this fact. While I was glad that Gyula Castle had survived the Ottoman and counter-Ottoman onslaughts, I could not help but think of all the castles and fortifications in southern Hungary which had been ground to dust by decades of unending warfare. They had been erased from history never to return. It was unsettling to consider the eradication of this incredible heritage. For me, Gyula Castle represented all that had been lost, just as much as what still stands today. And while the castle still exists, the area around it has been transformed beyond all recognition. History moves on, Gyula Castle is all that remains.

Click here for: Besieged By Sterility – Gyula Castle: Tidying Up History (Part Three)


The Model Minority – Hungarians in Slovenia: On The Right Side Of History

On several occasions I have been walking down the street in a Hungarian city when I suddenly notice a decal on the back windshield of a car. The decal has a shape that looks somewhat like Hungary, only larger. The colors of it are the same as those of the Hungarian flag. The decal also includes the Holy Crown of Hungary topping a shield with the Double Cross. I have since learned that these decals show an outline of the Kingdom of Hungary, as it existed prior to the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon which shrank Hungary by two-thirds. These decals are a symbol of tacit support for Greater Hungary, but not much more than that. I doubt the drivers of many of these automobiles are ready to enlist for a fight to expand the frontiers, most are engaging in a symbolic gesture. Nonetheless, such symbols can be found all across the country. I have seen holographic postcards which depending on how they are turned, show either the nation of Hungary or the Kingdom of Hungary. I have heard long winded expressions of sorrow for “the lost lands”. There are monuments to Trianon scattered throughout the country. There is even an unofficial Trianon museum in Varpalota. My main memory of it is of hardly any heating and very little lighting in the dead of winter.

Stuck on it - Pre-Trianon Hungary stickers

Stuck on it – Pre-Trianon Hungary stickers

Holding Themselves Hostage – A Land Called Trianon
Then there are the lands taken away by Trianon whose mere mention offers another level of trauma. Mention Transylvania and a quiet resignation permeates the ensuing conversation. The same goes for Felvidek (Upper Hungary, present day Slovakia) or to a lesser extent, Ujvidek (the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia). These lands seem to hold the Hungarian historical imagination hostage. This makes it strange when I reflect upon the fact that not once have I ever heard or read a Hungarian bemoan the lands that were lost to Austria or Slovenia, known respectively as the Burgenland and  Prekmurje. There is a reason for this, specifically that both territories ethnic Hungarian population was quite small. The size and scale of the lands lost due to Trianon was so vast, that what amounts to small slivers of territory has not made much of an impression. Yet both places act as outliers for ethnic Hungarians in Trianon lands, because they enjoy rights and relations in these countries which could hardly be any better off if they actually lived in Hungary. This is especially true for those Hungarians who now live in Slovenia.

To get an idea of just what a break with historical precedent the Treaty of Trianon was, consider that the land known today as the Prekmurje, was under the control of Hungarians as early as the 10th century. Hungarians put down deep roots in the fertile soil of the land they called Muravidek. They were not the only ones, as Slovenes had been in the area since the 9th century. In a period stretching over almost an entire millennium, the Prekmurje was one of the most stable areas in central Europe. It was under either Hungarian or Habsburg rule during that time. All that changed with the end of World War I. In 1919 the Prekmurje was under four different administrations. The swirl of chaos that engulfed the region was put to an end by troops from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. When the Treaty of Trianon went in to effect there were 14,000 Hungarians in the Prekmurje. They made up approximately 15% of the population. This number began to dwindle even though Hungary regained the area for several years during World War 2.

Lendava - with the Esterhazy chateau above the town

Lendava – with the Esterhazy chateau above the town (Credit: Pierre Bona)

Last Of Their Kind –  A Magyar  Mentality
By and large Hungarians in the Prekmurje have enjoyed an unexciting, if not to say anonymous existence. This continues today. Though the population considering themselves ethnically Hungarian in the region has dropped to just 6,200, their presence is still noticeable, specifically in the larger town of Lendava and the villages of Hodos and Dobrovnik, all within ten kilometers of Hungary’s southwestern border. Four out of every ten citizens in Lendava are Hungarian and the municipality is bilingual. It is not hard to feel the Hungarian historical influence in the town, because its main tourist attraction was once the property of Hungary’s most illustrious noble family. What could be more Hungarian than the House of Esterhazy? One of the Esterhazy’s manor houses stands just above the heart of Lendava. The hillsides surrounding the town are covered with vineyards, the mild climate is an excellent place to grow grapes.

Further out in the countryside stands one of the villages that consists almost entirely of ethnic Hungarians. Dobrovnik, not to be mistaken for the famous walled coastal Croatian city, is a tidy village full of neat houses that stretches out along the roadways. The one roundabout in the village lies at its most heavily trafficked point, the junction of highways 439 and 441. This is also where the 18th century St. James Church stands with its faded façade and cracked paint, built by who else, but the Esterhazy clan. The nobility endowed the Hungarian areas of Slovenia with their most lasting architectural features. In return, the locals fought hard and loyally for Austria-Hungary in the Great War. Dobrovnik lost twenty-seven of its men in the war. Losses of such a high proportion of manpower in small villages like Dobrovnik were one of the reasons there was no one left to fight for the old Kingdom’s borders after the war.

Ethnic Hungarians at the Lendava railway station in 1941

Ethnic Hungarians at the Lendava railway station in 1941 (Credit:

Better Off Without You – Prosperity & The Prekmurje
Dobrovnik may have been lost to its mother country, but the Hungarians have done pretty well for themselves there. The village is well kempt, clean and prosperous looking even though agriculture is in perpetual decline. The same can be said for Lendava. No one is asking, but it is doubtful if the Hungarians of the Prekmurje would prefer living across the border with their ethnic kinsmen. In Slovenia, the Hungarian language has status as an official regional language. Special rights for the Hungarians are enshrined in the Slovenian constitution.  They even have a special representative in the national parliament who has veto rights over legislation affecting the Hungarian minority.

Possibly the greatest factor keeping the relative handful of Hungarians in Slovenia is money. Hungarians vote with their pocketbooks rather than their feet when it comes to calling Slovenia home. The Gross Domestic Product per person is $8,000 dollars greater in Slovenia than Hungary, plus Slovenia uses the Euro which has an excellent exchange rate compared to the Hungarian forint. Life is pretty good for Hungarians in Slovenia, it is hard to imagine that if history had been different they would be any better off.

Chronic Absenteeism –Eastern Europeans Abroad: In Search Of Opportunity

I first became cognizant of Eastern Europeans heading abroad to pursue better economic opportunities 17 years ago while working for a summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Many seasonal stores and shops there employed Latvian students who looked by turns bemused and perplexed at finding themselves spending a summer far from the Baltic Sea. Instead they were on a barrier island along a stretch of distant American shoreline. I distinctly remember talking with one bored looking Latvian girl who was sequestered behind a gas station cash register. When I revealed a bit of my knowledge about her homeland, she looked at me as though I was crazy. Small talk was not her thing. She was there to earn money to tide her over for the coming year at university. The infusion of Latvian seasonal workers to the Carolina coast was nothing compared to what I experienced during my five years living in Wall, South Dakota.

High Plains Drifters – Eastern Europe in Western South Dakota
Wall is home to the world famous Wall Drug, a tourist hot spot par excellence. The drug store’s main claim to fame are its signs which dot interstates in all directions, hundreds of miles in advance of this kitschy attraction. Wall Drug signs can be found in such far flung locales as the North Pole, Nairobi and Amsterdam among many other places. In my travels, I have never seen a Wall Drug sign in Eastern Europe, but that has not stopped the drug store in recruiting legions of workers from these nations.  In that tiny town on the high plains of South Dakota there were Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgars and Macedonians. Enough ethnic diversity to rival the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was settled down for a long, hot summer on the wind blasted landscape of rolling grasslands. I availed myself of the opportunity to hang out with these student age workers and discovered that several had already spent other summers away from their homelands.

Most of them hoped to eventually move abroad after they completed their degrees. Case in point, a young Polish woman who had worked the two previous summers in Wales. Her first job was working in a factory that mass produced baked goods. Putting dollops of cream on top of cakes paid more than many professional jobs did in Poland. Her mother held a decent government job in Poland but pay was mediocre and the work mind numbing. Cake factory work was no one’s idea of excitement, but the pay was worth it. She remarked that bartending in an English pub paid more than any job she could find back in Poland. Eventually after graduating university, she moved to Wales, found a good job and married another Pole who was there for the same reasons.

Rule Britannia - Eastern European living in Great Britain

Rule Britannia – Eastern European living in Great Britain

En Masse Emigration – Going West
The phenomenon of meeting Eastern Europeans far from their homelands continued on a trip around western Turkey several years later. It was there that I met a very nice young couple by the name of Andrew and Agnes. They were from Australia, or at least that was what I first thought. The couple had met while Agnes worked an internship in Australia, she was originally from Hungary. They had married not long before and spent the first year of their marriage on the island of Jersey in the English Channel due to her husband’s job. Agnes related her experiences of a winter spent living in relative isolation, suffering through endless, drenching rainstorms. This was not how she remembered life in Hungary, but she went where her husband’s work took her. A few years later I made the acquaintance of a would be Hungarian filmmaker. To support his projects, he was forced to find IT work, not in Hungary but Great Britain. He went there for the better wages. Working part of the year in Britain was more lucrative than a full-time job in Hungary.

Then there was my wife. Prior to our marriage and her emigration to the United States she spent a couple of summers working well-paying jobs at English language schools in Britain. When we met, she was considering moving there. One of her best friends worked for the United Nations and took a two year position in Jordan because it paid better than the one she had in Hungary. Another emigrated to Canada and immediately found a good paying job, soon thereafter she joined Toronto’s middle class. The more Hungarians I met, the more I realized how many upwardly mobile ones were leaving the country. This should not have been surprising, but it was for me. The media – especially in Great Britain – had been full of stories for years about Poles descending on their country in droves. There were fears throughout Europe of the dreaded Polish plumbers and legions of Romanians and Bulgarians emigrating en masse in search of economic opportunity.

The Rich Get Richer – Westward Flows The Course Of Emigration
Knowing so many Eastern Europeans who had left, were leaving or planned to leave their homelands personalized the situation for me. I began to wonder how these countries could possibly replace all that talent and brainpower, the short answer is that they cannot. Many of their best and brightest have headed abroad in search of a lifestyle that their parents could only have dreamed of. The stultifying corruption of post-communist governments in Eastern Europe forced those without insider connections to emigrate to richer, westernized countries where their job prospects would be based on achievement and merit. This emigration, mainly to the most economically developed European Union member nations, is unprecedented in the history of Eastern Europe.

According to the United Nations, fully 6% of Eastern Europe’s population emigrated between 1992 and 2015. That figure computes to an 18 million people, equivalent to the combined population of Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania. All that human capital is hard at work in western countries, innovating, creating and producing. The rich get richer. Meanwhile Eastern Europe fights to maintain its place in an increasingly globalized world. Strides have been made in many Eastern European countries to lure talent back home or keep it from going abroad. Trying to reverse a quarter century of emigration from east to west will take time and most importantly, money.

The Coming Of The Vizslas –  Conquering Hearts: Hungary’s Iconic Companion

There are certain aspects of history that will never be known. It is a daunting thought to consider that way less is known about the past than anyone can possibly imagine. Put simply, much more has been lost than preserved. This is especially true when it comes to pre-modern history. Before the era of mass literacy (largely a 20th century phenomenon), documentation was limited. The past only survives in fragments, whether on paper or parchment, in slowly disintegrating ruins or beneath the earth waiting to be uncovered by excavation. Because of this incomplete record of the past, historians and scientists are often left to amass evidence wherever possible. This makes it nearly impossible to say when and where many things began.

Such is the case with the Magyar Vizsla, that most iconic of Hungarian sporting dogs. Ancestors of the Vizsla are believed to have been with the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes when they first arrived and conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. Exactly when the Vizsla breed originated is open to conjecture. The starting point for when a breed of hound resembling the Vizsla enters history is not open to speculation. It is commonly given as 1357, the year generally agreed upon when a Vizsla first appears in the historical record.

Distant Ancestors - Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

Distant Ancestors – Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

A Gift To The Future – Illuminated History
In the mid-14th century, King Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1342- 1382) decreed that an illuminated chronicle be created depicting the history, culture and life of Hungary. Officially it was known by its Latin name of Chronicon Pictum or Chronicon (Hungariiae) Pictum (also known as the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle), which in translation means “Illuminated Hungarian Chronicle”. That name is an apt description of the magnificent volume created. It contains 147 illuminated pictures (as well as text) that provide some of the best visual information on the culture, court life and lifestyle in the upper echelons of medieval Hungarian society during the reign of Louis I.

The illuminated artistic renderings are a tribute to the artistic ability of Mark Kalti, a priest who produced the work. Such was the combination of intimacy and accuracy in the Chronicon’s that it took Kalti nearly fifteen years to complete the work. It was then given by Louis to King Charles of France upon the engagement of the Louis’ daughter to Charles’ son. It would turn out to be more than a gift between royals, it was also a gift to the future that would come to inform a great deal of history, including that of the Vizsla.

Kalti’s work included the first documented representation of a dog resembling a Vizsla. It is found in a section of the Chronicon that provides information on falconry. Prior to the advent of firearms, hunters relied on falcons as their weapons of choice in hunting wild game. The role of finding and pointing out such animals was left to hounds that were most likely ancestors of the modern Vizsla. There has been a great deal of speculation as to what dog is portrayed in Kalti’s rendering. It was likely a yellow Turkish hound or a breed of hound from Transylvania. The hound’s appearance in the Chronicon is similar enough to the modern Vizsla that many believe this to be one of its forebears. Other references to dogs of similar stature and skill can be found in Hungarian documentation throughout the centuries leading right up to the modern age

The Vizsla - Hungarian Born & Bred

The Vizsla – Hungarian Born & Bred (Credit: Antoniodog)

A Rare Breed – On The Edge Of Extinction
During the period from the 18th through the mid-20th century, the Vizsla was quite literally an aristocratic dog. Most of the owners were the social elites of Hungary. This meant that a relatively small number were bred. Ownership was closely guarded by those who saw the Vizsla as much a symbol of wealth and refinement as it was a hunting dog. By the late 19th century, the Vizsla had become overwhelmed by pointer breeds in Hungary that were dominated by an influx of English setters and German Weimaraners. The number of pure bred Vizslas left in Hungary was miniscule. If something was not done, the Vizsla would soon become extinct. A group of breeders scoured the countryside, where they were able to collect a dozen pure breds. It was from this stock that the Vizsla rose once again in numbers and prominence over the course of the first four decades of the 20th century. Their growth prospects look assured until they took a disastrous turn for the worse during the Second World War.

Like everything else Hungarian, the Vizsla breed suffered irreparable harm when the fighting between German and Soviet forces came to Hungary during the latter part of 1944. As the Red Army fought its way across the country, the Vizslas, much like their aristocratic owners were subjected to murderous treatment. They were possessions of the wrong class, in the wrong country, at the wrong time. This led to the decimation of nearly all Vizslas in Hungary. The situation was dire by war’s end. Once again, the Vizsla was facing extinction. Fortunately, some of their aristocratic owners who had fled to the west took their Vizslas with them. Though they once again numbered little more than a dozen, this Vizsla stock would provide a resurgence in numbers. What also helped matters was that Vizslas were taken abroad to peaceful and prosperous countries such as the United States and Canada where they would soon thrive.

Growth Spurt - A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary

Growth Spurt – A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary (Credit: Adam Ziaja)

The Embodiment of Hungary – A Special Breed In A Special Land
The transport of Vizslas to the west following the Second World War was the beginning of a buildup that led to the healthy population that can be found throughout the world today. They have also returned to prominence in Hungary, valued as hunting dog, loyal companion and family pet. Their intelligence, beauty and grace has made them highly valued. In many ways, Vizslas are reflective of the land where they originated and the Hungarians who revere them. They are a special breed in a special land, seen by many as an embodiment of Hungarian greatness. To see a Vizsla in the Hungarian countryside is an unforgettable experience, a fascinating reminder of this iconic breed’s deep roots in the land of the Magyars.

A Breed Apart – The Hungarian Vizslas of Edgemont South Dakota: Going To The Dogs

According to a website that references U.S. census records in calculating the ethnicity of cities and towns in the United States, the most Hungarian place in South Dakota is Selby, a small town located just east of the Missouri River in the north part of the state. In case you did not know, South Dakota has never been known as a hotbed of Magyar immigration. That makes Selby something of an anomaly. Supposedly 2.88% of the town’s residents claim direct Hungarian descent. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it is more than twice the percentage of any other town in the state.

My own experience with the town did not reveal any signs of Hungarians. I traveled through Selby twelve years ago, during the dead of winter, only stopping to top off the gas tank. The temperature was hovering in the single digits and few people were around. It would have been an unlikely occurrence to meet any Hungarians there, almost as unlikely as Selby having the highest proportion of ethnic Hungarians of any town in South Dakota. I have no idea why a handful of Hungarians settled in the area, but this little piece of trivia I came across online lodged itself in my memory. Later, I wondered if it was true, especially after visiting another rural area in South Dakota. This is where I discovered another settlement with a modest proportion of Hungarians. The number and type of Hungarians turned out to a surprise, especially considering the location.

Ready For Action - A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose

Ready For Action – A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose (Credit: Tito Hentschel)

Dogged Existence – Living On The Edge
Edgemont, South Dakota lies on the edge of the southern Black Hills in the extreme southwestern part of the state. It is a forlorn town not on the way to anywhere other than equally remote parts of eastern Wyoming. Edgemont is little more than a service center for the ranches spread out across a vast area beyond the town limits. The town has been bleeding population for years and looks the part, with plenty of abandoned buildings in the central business district. The young leave, birth rates decline, the remaining population tends toward the elderly. On the surface, this seems to be about the only thing Edgemont has in common with anywhere in Hungary. The rural areas in both places are slowing dying off. Edgemont can hardly afford to lose any citizens either in the town or surrounding countryside.

From what I have seen there is only one stable population group in the area. Just 15 minutes north of town, tucked away where the Black Hills begin to rise, is a community consisting entirely of Hungarians and Germans. One which manages to replenish itself year after year. Their home can be found off a dirt road bordered by sandstone and intermittent pine forest. This community lives without the worries or stress found in more populated locales. What is the secret to their success? It is quite simple, the community has gone to the dogs. That is because two distinct breeds call the area home, they are Hungarian Vizslas and German Weimaraners sired at Blue Creek Kennels. The Vizslas sometimes number as many as twenty. If we divide 20 by the latest population figure of 711 for Edgemont, then that means the Vizslas are 2.8% of the population of Edgemont. That puts them on equal footing with those of ethnic Hungarian descent in Selby. And unlike Hungarians in Selby, the Vizslas of Edgemont are pure breeds with a blood line uncorrupted by interbreeding.

Pick of the Litter - Blue Creek Kennel

Pick of the Litter – Blue Creek Kennel (Credit: Blue Creek Kennel)

Pointed In The Right Direction – On The Hunt For Vizslas
Of course, Vizslas are not people, but they are certainly Hungarian. The Vizsla has become synonymous with Hungary and vice versa. It is their homeland, from where they first came to prominence and then spread around the world. They have also become a favorite breed of those searching for the finest hunting dogs in the world. Vizslas are pointer dogs valued for their keen instincts which make them masters at locating prey. They were prized by Hungarian aristocrats for their prowess on hunts and have lost none of that over the centuries. These same qualities are still valued by hunters all over Europe and North America today. They also make excellent companion dogs, known for their calm temperament and loyalty, the Vizsla is now as much a family as it is a hunting dog. Such traits convinced me and my wife to purchase a Vizsla from their newest home away from Hungary just outside of Edgemont.

It only took us five minutes to select the one we felt would be right for us. Standing affectionately, but calmly behind several other Vizslas leaping and lunging forward, was an eight month old pup with the stature and grace befitting one of the most regal dogs in the world. This Vizsla was soon in our arms and stole our hearts. We named him Tisza, after the great river of eastern Hungary. The river can never flow as fast as he can run. Tisza, like other Vizslas, can run at speeds up to 40 mph (64 kph). His personality turned out to be just as exuberant as his energy level. It took him no time to become a beloved member of our family, a constant reminder of the proud and refined nature of this most beloved Hungarian breed.

Tisza the Vizsla - A Hungarian Icon

Tisza the Vizsla – A Hungarian Icon

Something Of A Miracle – Return Of The Vizslas
The fact that Tisza and other Vizslas can be found in South Dakota is somewhat surprising, especially in a place as remote as the area around Edgemont. The fact that Vizslas can be found anywhere in the world today is downright astonishing. They are something of a miracle, brought back from near extinction in the mid-20th century. Hungary’s calamitous 20th century brought about the end of its aristocracy which had done so much to raise Vizslas to prominence. Many Vizslas suffered the same fate as their masters, but some managed to escape. They were carried away from communist Hungary by their owners, continuing their history which starts with documentation all the back to the late Middle Ages and continues today in such far flung areas as the American Great Plains. The Vizsla lives on both in the present and past.

A Terrifying Poignancy – Randolph Braham: Encyclopedias Of Sorrow (Part Three)

It took twenty years of painstaking work for Randolph Braham to research and write his seminal work on the Hungarian Holocaust. In 1981 that two volume, 1,269 page study, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust of Hungary was published. It set a standard that has never been surpassed. Braham’s work was a product of extreme thoroughness, with the emphasis on extreme. He presented a massive amount of information within the framework of a compelling narrative. It showed how the Holocaust came about and then was carried out in Hungary. The book was then, as it is today, the premier reference work on the topic. That is because it was based upon thousands upon thousands of hours of research from a wide variety of sources in multiple languages. Collecting and assimilating the research was one thing, it was quite another to organize it into a coherent whole. Braham did this with considerable skill. The incredible amount of detail found in the two-volume, thirty-two chapter work cannot be understated.

A Nightmare During Daylight - Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Nightmare In Broad Daylight – Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Resurrecting Truth – From Darkness Into Light
It is hard to fathom how one person could have the intellectual capacity, ambition and passion to do this much academic research, then carry it to conclusion after two decades of work. A monumental amount of patience and effort was needed to complete both the main narrative, as well as four appendixes, a ten page long chronological timeline of key events, seven page glossary of terms and an index three times that long.  All this added up to the most comprehensive coverage of the Hungarian Holocaust ever put down on paper. The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators would have been astounded to discover that anyone would go to such lengths in cataloging their crimes. Their efforts to destroy the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews tragically succeeded, but those same efforts to destroy history failed miserably. Braham singlehandedly reconstructed the Hungarian Holocaust from archives in Europe and the United States. He turned out to be the ultimate antidote to those who had tried to erase the Jewish presence in Hungary.

Braham was relentless to the point of obsessiveness. This allowed him to resurrect history that many felt was better off left buried. Braham delineated the actions and intentions which led to the destruction of a large proportion of Hungarian Jewry. His work left the guilty nowhere to hide. They could be found in the pages of his two volume classic. To immerse oneself in such dark subject matter for years on end took someone of great mental stability. Braham never broke down under the strain of his research and writing. It would surely have been easy considering the subject matter. He readily admitted to being consumed by a mission. Stating in his characteristically direct style, that “My function is to pursue the truth.” That pursuit meant going to extraordinary lengths in order to ensure the truth was brought from darkness into the light.

Braham’s work was a duty to the memory of those who were murdered, as well as a gift of knowledge to future generations. The only way not to repeat one of the gravest sins in history was to educate and illuminate. In this Braham succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. The Politics of Genocide was more than a book, it was also an artifact that would provide scholars, students and other interested parties the knowledge needed to understand the how and why of the Holocaust. To give future generations the correct information to help them fathom how an entire race of people could be murdered for no other reason than who they were. Braham made the unfathomable understandable. Few have performed such a feat of historical scholarship. The most incredible thing was that Braham was just getting started. There was more, much more from him to come.

Randolph Braham - The Scholar of Hungarian Jews' Sorrow

Randolph Braham – The Scholar of Hungarian Jews’ Sorrow

The Forces Of Fascism – A Mania For Deportation
The culmination of Braham’s decades of research on the Holocaust were brought to fruition with the publication of The Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust In Hungary. These three volumes were published in 2013, over three decades after the Politics of Genocide. The Encyclopedia managed to go into even greater detail than Braham’s previous works. He acted as the editor and primary contributor, while at the same time overseeing the efforts of twenty other scholars who contributed articles. The volumes once again relied on Braham’s hallmarks, intensive research from a wide range of sources. If there was a source worth reading than Braham or the other contributors read it. A brilliant mind, Braham brought together the intellectual brainpower that could handle the enormous task of documenting 600,000 Hungarian Jewish lives being lost in less than a year.

A withering array of details were documented. This included information concerning the Holocaust’s effect on even the tiniest of villages. There were many entries for places with only a handful of Jews. The scores of villages affected were given space in the text alongside cities. Such minute details from remote villages made for a terrifying poignancy. Arresting and deporting Jews meant scouring villages in the most remote areas of Hungary. The mania for deportation knew no bounds. Jews in tahe Hungarian countryside suffered more than most. The once serene countryside was stalked by the forces of evil for months on end. No Hungarian Jew was safe from the forces of fascism. Braham’s work showed that the devil really was in the details.

A Nightmare During Daylight - Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Nightmare During Daylight – Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Truth Sitting On Shelves – A Life’s Work
Randolph Braham’s work on the Hungarian Holocaust was done to ensure that the world would never forget what happened to the Jews of Hungary during the latter part of World War II. Because of Braham many people have not forgotten, but others have managed to dissemble, misremember or deflect blame. That was why in 2005, Braham returned his Order of the Star of Romania. Less than a decade later, he did the same with his Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. It was unconscionable for Braham that nationalist governments were misrepresenting what had really happened during the Holocaust. Braham had explicitly outlined this history in his works. If only the present generation could bring themselves to read and study his books. The truth is sitting on shelves all over Europe and the United States awaiting rediscovery. That was Braham’s great gift to the world, if only we could accept it.

Click here for: From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

Like so many others, Adolf Abraham discovered that you can never go home again. That was because when he returned to his hometown of Dej in northwestern Transylvania he could not find most of the people or life that existed there only three years earlier. While Abraham was there in a physical sense, something deeply spiritual was missing. His hometown and the vibrant Jewish life that had been such a part of it was now gone forever. As for Abraham, it might be said that he had come back from the dead. Comparatively few in the town’s once strong Jewish community could say they were that lucky. Their destiny had been much darker. In 1941, Dej’s Jewish population was 3,719, at the end of the war only 239 were left. There had been almost as many Jewish traders in the town before the war, as survivors after it. The community had been ravaged by the Holocaust. For Abraham, returning was risky.

The Red Army and communists were beginning to tighten their grip on Romania. Hungarians in northern Transylvania were viewed with barely veiled hatred due to Hungary’s takeover of the region in 1940 and the ethnic atrocities that had followed. Hungarian Jews were viewed with skepticism and suspicion. The Romanians were not likely to trust anyone who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue. Hungarian Jews were in the worst position possible. They had lost trust in other Hungarians after what had happened during the Holocaust. Friends, neighbors and fellow citizens had turned on them. If it happened once, it could certainly happen again. Their situation was perilous. As for Abraham, he returned home long enough to complete his primary school exam. After that there was no reason for him to stay in Transylvania, Romania or Eastern Europe. He counted thirteen relatives who had been murdered in the Holocaust. Jewish Dej in its pre-war form no longer existed. The roots of Abraham’s former life in the town had been almost entirely extinguished. It was time for him to leave.

The Horror - Romanian workmen examine an exhumed body of a Jew killed in the ghetto in Dej

The Horror – Romanian workmen examine an exhumed body of a Jew killed in the ghetto in Dej (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum courtesy of Randolph Braham)

A Massive Undertaking – Years In The Making
Abraham soon left Romania for good, joining a Transylvanian friend traveling to Budapest. From there he made his way to the American Zone in Berlin. It was in the bombed out postwar German capital where his language skills were in demand. He procured a job as a translator for a refugee program administered by the U.S. Army. It was not long after this that he entered higher education for the first time, attending university in Munich. It was here that the first phase of his life, the one which had been most deeply affected by the war, came to an end. Family, friends and the place he called home had been eradicated by the Holocaust. The only thing left were memories, many of them nightmarish. Later, they would provide fuel for his ambition to study the Hungarian Holocaust with a scrutiny that no one could or would ever match. To unearth the documents and delineate the details that reconstructed just what had happened to the Hungarian Jews during the latter part of the war was soon to become his life’s mission. That all lay in the future. First, he would emigrate to the United States, where several of his relatives had moved in the 1920’s. Such distant connections helped him choose it over Israel.

Abraham soon sailed into New York Harbor. A whole new life awaited him, one that would largely be based upon looking back at the Eastern Europe he had left behind. In the space of four years the erudite Abraham managed to obtain bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. Almost immediately thereafter he became an American citizen and changed his name to Randolph Louis Braham. The middle name of Louis was a tribute to his father, Lajos (Hungarian for Louis), who had met with death on one of the early transports to Auschwitz carrying Hungarian Jews. He hoped the latter transformation would help him avoid the taint of antisemitism. Though much milder in America, antisemitism still had a nefarious influence on careers in academia. While the choice of name disguised his Jewishness, Braham’s scholarly intentions soon became clear. Officially, he was a political scientist with an abiding interest in comparative politics, but most of his research and academic output was heavily weighted towards the Hungarian Holocaust.  He brought a laser like focus to the topic, examining even the most minute details in order to reconstruct when, why, where and how the Holocaust in Hungary happened. This would lead to works unlike anything ever attempted before. It was a massive undertaking that involved years of tireless effort to complete.

Before The Holocaust - Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Before The Holocaust – Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Collective Horror – A Duty To Discover & Document
Randolph Braham’s life was nearly taken away by the Holocaust. He responded by spending the rest of his life researching and writing about the same event which had nearly destroyed him. His work focused on every aspect of the Holocaust in Hungary, from the years of creeping authoritarianism and anti-Jewish laws to its insidious inception that ended in gas chambers, incinerators and mass graves. A unique aspect of Braham’s pioneering work was that he not only detailed the history, but had also been a part of it. Not that anyone would have known, because only very late in life would he explicitly state that he was a survivor. Such intimate knowledge gained from first-hand experience helped him understand all aspects of the collective horror inflicted upon the Jews of Hungary. This led to a colossal scholarly output of over 60 books and ten times that many articles during a career that stretched over fifty years.

Several of his books dealt with Braham’s other passion, comparative politics. He was nearly as interested in this subject as he was the Holocaust. In certain works, he was able to integrate the two. He also proved to be a formidable opponent of the communist whitewashes in Hungary and Romania concerning the genocide of their Jewish populations during World War II. To not speak of such an evil, was a crime against posterity as well as humanity. Braham’s works made deniability that much more difficult. He cast light into the darkest recesses of Holocaust historiography in Hungary. These were the decisions, events, and places no one wanted to acknowledge. The shame was unbearable and for many it still is. Collective guilt has been something many have found it impossible accept. Whether they did or not, Randolph Braham was going to tell the world anyway. The truth was out there. He planned on discovering and documenting it. That is just what he did.

A Stranger On The Inside – Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham: The Making of Hungary’s Holocaust Historian (Part One)

A chosen few were shaped by fate, destiny and chance to survive the Holocaust. They would live to tell what they and millions of others experienced. These men and women managed to somehow avoid death long enough to outlive the war. It then became their responsibility to bear witness, catalog crimes and ensure that the world would never forget the nightmare that descended upon Europe from 1939 – 1945. This war within a war had sought to exterminate an entire people from the face of the earth. Only part of this extermination had to do with murder, another part of it sought to wipe them from the history books, to ensure that there would be nothing left to remember them by. The atrocity of historical amnesia to go alongside that of mass murder. Holocaust survivors made sure that this has not happened, foremost among them was a Hungarian Jew by the name Randolph Braham or as he was known during his early years in Romania and Hungary, Adolf Abraham.

A Way of Life - Dej Synagogue

A Way of Life – Dej Synagogue (Credit: Clara Spitzer)

Discriminating Minds – The Struggle To Belong
Adolf Abraham’s upbringing and early life gave him a unique perspective on what it meant to be an outsider. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Bucharest rather than Budapest. Soon thereafter his family returned to their home in Transylvania. He grew up during the interwar period in a Romania riven by political, economic and ethnic tensions. Fascism was on the rise. The far-right Romanian Iron Guard was on the march. It was a good thing that his family did not live in the Romanian capital, it put them further from the main forces of virulent antisemitism, but only for a little while. They were under much less threat in the Transylvanian town of Dej (Des in Hungarian). Being Hungarian Jews in Transylvania, placed the Abrahams family in a distinct minority, one that was smarting from Transylvania becoming part of Romania due to the post-World War I peace process. Hungarians had lost their central role in running Transylvania and Hungarian Jews had become something of an afterthought. Being a Jew further alienated the young Adolf from both ruler and ruled.

There was also the Abraham family’s economic situation. The family lived in dire poverty. Their house had no electricity at a time when Transylvanian winters were much more ferocious than they are today. His father was a laborer, finding work whenever and wherever he could. Life was a struggle, with education and religion the only reliable outlets. The family practiced a milder form of Orthodox Judaism. Adolf was well educated in both the faith and in academics at a Jewish school in Dej. It was a simple life with a few pleasures despite the poverty.  Then in 1940, it all began to change for the worse. That was when Northern Transylvania was stripped from Romania and handed over to Hungary due to German intervention. Though Adolf and his family spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue, that did nothing to save them from the Hungarian state’s discriminatory measures towards Jews. The avenue of education was soon cut off for him as Jews were barred from attending public schools. For the next couple of years, he completed his coursework at home.

Virtual Slavery - Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Virtual Slavery – Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Destined For Survival – Holding Out For Dear Life
The situation for Jews in Dej grew increasingly threatening as World War II progressed. In 1943, Adolf was forcibly conscripted into a Jewish labor battalion which was sent to Ukraine in support of the Axis war effort. This accursed duty turned out to be a blessing in venal disguise. While he was fearing for his life at the front, the German occupation of Hungary took place. This directly led to the Hungarian gendarmerie being utilized for rounding up all the Jews of Dej, including Adolf’s family. Both of his parents and all his siblings, except for his sister, would perish in Auschwitz. He would have likely met the same fate except for the labor battalion. What had seemed like a death sentence would end up allowing him to escape such a fate by the narrowest of margins. The situation on the Eastern Front was dire. The Soviet Red Army was soon entering Hungarian territory. Usually the labor battalion members would be liquidated when they outlived their usefulness. In Abraham’s case, fate intervened.

The collapse of Hungarian forces and attendant chaos was so swift that Adolf soon found himself in a Soviet Prisoner of War camp. While his life had been saved for the time being, the future was bleak. These camps were little more than holding areas for prisoners who were to be transported to the Gulag deep inside the Soviet Union.  Adolf did not wait for the inevitable transport to happen. Instead, he escaped with four other men. Their prospects for survival were bleak. They would now have to wait out the war until it ended. Just staying alive was a daily trial. Getting caught in Hungary would mean either a swift execution or sure death in a German concentration camp. Abraham and his fellow escapees made their way into what is today northeastern Hungary. In such a predominantly rural part of the country, the Hungarian gendarmerie did the Nazis dirty work for them. Avoiding arrest was going to be extremely difficult. The gendarmerie officers had local knowledge and contacts on their side.

Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham - Preeminent historian of the Holocuast in Hungary

Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham – Preeminent historian of the Holocuast in Hungary

The Gift Of Humanity – Historian In A Haystack
Around the small village of Nyeri in northeastern Hungary, the men found themselves forced to hide in bales of hay. A local farmer, Istvan Novak, discovered them. This turned out to be the greatest of several strokes of luck for Adolf. Novak risked his own life to save the men. If they were discovered, he too would have been executed. It was extremely dangerous duty, literally a matter of life and death. Istvan Novak did not fail these men. He would later be given the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli nation for his efforts. Without one man’s humanity and courage the Hungarian Holocaust would never have been given its greatest historian. Adolf Abraham would do more than just survive. He would never let the world forget what he, his family and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews had suffered. For that to happen though, he would have to confront the challenge of an old world destroyed one excruciating fact at a time.

Click here for: From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)