Seeing Red – Hungary vs. Soviet Union: Blood in the Water (Part Two)

Some people say you can never go home again. That is not always true. You can go home again, just know that nothing will be the same. This was the situation facing members of Hungary’s Olympic Water Polo team in 1956. They would face a decision when the Olympics ended. By the time the Water Polo competition in Melbourne began, almost two months had passed since the Hungarian Revolution had ended in defeat. The passage of time was not enough to heal the wounds felt by members of the team who had left family and friends behind in a country where freedom was crushed beneath the weight of Soviet tanks. All were torn between returning to an authoritarian Hungary or defecting abroad.

In retrospect, the decision seems a no brainer. Why would anyone want to return to an authoritarian country when the prospect of freedom was as close as the nearest embassy. By leaving, they would risk never seeing family or friends again. Their hopes of playing water polo in international competitions would fade. Training for the highest levels of competition had been all these athletes knew. They would also lose the fringe benefits (housing, cars) that came with being an elite Olympic athlete in a communist country. Thus, a decision to defect would not be an easy one, but before that could or would happen there was a gold medal to win.

Blood sport – Ervin Zador after the Hungary-Soviet Union match at the 1956 Olympics (Credit: Olympic Photo Association)

Grudge Match – Fighting for Supremacy
In the 1956 Olympics, Hungary’s Water Polo team may have been the best in the world and favored to win the gold medal, but they would later admit to being distracted in the early rounds of the Olympic competition. That did not stop them from implementing a new strategy. The Hungarians packed into a zone on defense, then as soon as an opportunity presented itself, they would launch a ferocious counterattack. This strategy proved incredibly successful as they won their first four games by a combined score of 20 – 3 to get them through to the semifinals. The team’s newest star, Ervin Zador shined. He was a youthful addition to the veteran squad. Picked up from a local team, Zador quickly proved to be one of the world’s top players. The Hungarians would need Zador and all their skill as they prepared to face off against the Soviet Union’s team.

The Soviets were newcomers to the top echelons of the sport. They had not come anywhere close to contending for a medal at the 1952 Olympics, finishing seventh that year. The Soviet team had managed to improve since then by studying the Hungarians. The team traveled to Hungary, where they learned from the world’s best. This had already led to a fierce rivalry. Six months before the Olympics, Hungary played the Soviet team in an away game that turned into a brawl, both in the pool and the locker room afterwards. The enmity between the two teams grew after the Hungarian Revolution. The Olympic semifinal between the two teams would be a grudge match. Adding to the tension was a Hungarian expatriate community in Melbourne that was ready to pour vitriol on the Soviets as soon as they entered the pool.

Another battlefield – Water Polo match at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

A Pool of Blood – Violent Tendencies
Ironically, while the Soviet team carried the label of bad guys going into the game, the Hungarians would be more pugnacious to start. Part of this was personal, the other part strategic. The Hungarian players planned to use insults that would infuriate the Soviet players. Their reasoning was that if the Soviets got angry, then they would lose focus on the match. The Hungarian players had an advantage in this respect. Schools in Hungary taught the Russian language. Thus, the Hungarian could taunt the Russians using their own words. The Hungarian strategy worked from the outset. The game had barely begun when a Russian player reacted to the barrage of verbal taunts. He would be the first of many players to spend time in the penalty box. While the Hungarians referred to their opponents using a range of expletives, the Soviets called the Hungarians “traitors.” The physical nature of the match was difficult for the referees to control. All they could see was what went on above the waterline which at times turned into a near melee. Under the water, players engaged in brutal kicks and punches.

The Hungarian squad stuck to their strategy and outplayed the Soviets, scoring four goals, including two by Zador, while allowing none. With a minute left in the game, Zador heard a whistle blow. When he turned to look at the referee, Soviet player Valentin Prokopov, who he had been trading insults with throughout the match, slugged him. The punch knocked Zador momentarily senseless. Blood started streaming from a cut just above his eye and poured into the water. The pro-Hungarian crowd outraged at this blatant act of violence charged out of the stands and surrounded the pool. Suddenly, the referees had a near riot on their hands. A crowd of 5,000 angry spectators was seeing red, both literally and figuratively. The referees called the game over. Police then escorted the Soviet players to safety. Meanwhile, a photographer snapped a picture of Zador with blood around his eye and streaming down his face. This iconic image damned the Soviets as the bad guys when it came to their treatment of Hungarians.

Headliner – Front page of The Sun newspaper (Credit: National Library of Australia)

Zador’s Fate – Magyar Martyrdom
Ervin Zador instantly became a martyr for the Hungarian cause. This would do nothing to heal the pain he felt in the coming days. He lost his opportunity to play in the gold medal match against Yugoslavia due to the injury. He could only watch as Hungary eked out a 2 -1 win to take home the gold medal. The only problem was that half of the Hungarian Water Polo team and associated delegation would not be returning home. Zador was one of those. At the gold medal ceremony, tears ran from his injured eye. Soon thereafter, he emigrated to the United States. Cold War conflicts cut short a brilliant water polo. The Hungarians may have lost the revolution, but they fared better in the Olympics. Their 1956 Water Polo team not only won a gold medal, in the process they won over the free world. For that, they will always be champions.

Click here for: After the Revolution – Hungary vs. the Soviet Union: Blood in the Water (Part One)

After the Revolution – Hungary vs. the Soviet Union: Blood in the Water (Part One)

The Cold War was a global conflict fought all over the world. The political, economic, military, and cultural spheres were contested spaces. On one side were the democratic capitalist countries led by the United States, on the other were totalitarian communist ones led by the Soviet Union. Try as they might, nations could not avoid taking sides. Even not taking sides, meant taking a side, hence the Non-Aligned movement. Eastern Europe was at the epicenter of this geopolitical tug of war. This was true both externally and internally. The enemy was within as much as without, especially when it came to communist countries.

Golden Boys – Hungary’s 1956 Olympic Water Polo team

The Sporting Arena – Spheres of Influence
Quite often, Cold War cultural battles occurred in the sporting arena, primarily at the Olympic Games. Many can still remember watching the Soviet Union defeat the United States in basketball during a highly controversial finish at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich or the United States Men’s Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” upset of the supposedly invincible Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. There were always suspicions about steroid use and blood doping (the East German women’s swimming team to name but one example) that added an element of intrigue. Judging of competitions in boxing and figure skating were often scrutinized. Many believed the fix was in if their side failed to emerge triumphant.

There were also times when a singular performance such as those of the gymnasts Olga Korbut (Soviet Union) and Nadia Comaneci (Romania) helped break down barriers and unify people in agreement that they were witnessing something close to perfection. Less often remarked upon was that many of the countries in the Eastern Bloc were at times competing as much with their own side as they were with athletes and teams from western countries. The most dramatic of these internal competitions occurred in a water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. A semifinal match of such infamy that it has become forever known as the Blood in the Water match.

Taking to the street – Hungarian revolutionaries in Budapest (Credit: ETH Bibliotek)

Uprising – Fighting for Freedom
During the final week of October 1956, the Hungarian Revolution broke out in Budapest. It began with a student revolt against the hardline communism that had been imposed upon the nation since World War II. The flames of freedom spread like wildfire throughout the city and soon tens of thousands were joining the movement to liberate Hungary from communist rule. After a week, it looked like the revolution would succeed as Soviet troops had been forced to retreat. Soldiers in the Hungarian army had either given their weapons to the revolutionaries or joined them. The members of Hungary’s Olympic Water Polo Team knew a revolution was in the works. While at a training camp in the mountains not far from Budapest, they could see smoke from street battles rising into the sky.

Before they could learn many details, the 100 members of the team left for another training camp in Czechoslovakia. This would be their final stop prior to departure for Melbourne, where the summer Olympics would take place amid an Australian summer. The Hungarian Water Polo team had no idea that the full fury and might of the Red Army had descended upon Budapest in the first week of November. The Hungarian rebels’ small arms and homemade bombs were no match for the tanks, artillery, and heavy armor of the Soviet forces. The revolution was crushed in a matter of days with hundreds dying in the fighting and tens of thousands fleeing abroad. Totalitarian rule was once again imposed upon the country as mass arrests of anyone who was even loosely connected to the revolution were soon made.

Pooling their resources – Scene from Hungary Water Polo match at 1956 Olympics

Golden Boys – Catching a Wave
Meanwhile, the Hungarian Water Polo team was sequestered in training. They would not learn what had occurred until their arrival in Australia. One member of the team who was fluent in English got his hands on a Melbourne newspaper. He read an article about the revolution being crushed aloud to the team.  Right then, many decided that following the Olympics they would defect rather than return to Hungary. All were worried what might have happened to family members and friends back home. While this served as a major distraction in their efforts to win the gold medal, it also fueled their will to succeed. It also set the stage for the match they wanted more than any other, against a vastly improved Soviet team, one that hoped to take away the Olympic crown from the world’s greatest water polo playing nation.

By 1956, Hungary and water polo excellence had become synonymous. The Hungarian team had won three of the last four Olympic titles and finished runner-up in another one. The Olympic golds were won both before and after World War II, under both left- and right-wing authoritarian governments. The world’s best teams were no match for Hungarian supremacy in the world of water polo. Coming into the 1956 Olympics, Hungary were the defending champions. They had dominated the competition at Helsinki in 1952 where they won seven of 10 games and tied in the other three. Their greatest competition had traditionally come from the Italian and Yugoslav teams. The Soviet Union was now beginning to show vast improvement. They had placed seventh at their first Olympic competition in Helsinki. Now they threatened Hungary’s reign as the world’s best.

Pooling their resources – Scene from Hungary Water Polo match at 1956 Olympics

Fighting Back – A Resistance Mentality
Any sporting competition between Hungary and the Soviet Union was fraught with emotion. Water polo, which is an intensely physical game, made it more so. Even before the Revolution, Hungary had been a less than welcoming place for the Soviet team. At one tournament, the crowd turned their backs while the Soviets were being introduced. Hungary may have been east of the Iron Curtain, but its people chafed under Soviet rule. There were not many ways that Hungarians could show their disapproval of communism, but sports were one of them. The water polo team channeled a resistance mentality to fuel their determination. The Hungarians might not be able to defeat the Soviet Union in a military conflict, but in an Olympic sized swimming pool they could meet any challenge.

Click here for: Seeing Red – Hungary vs. Soviet Union: Blood in the Water (Part Two)  

Warning Signs – The Danube by Emil Lengyel (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #12b)

Even now, with all that has been written regarding the rise of Adolf Hitler, it is still hard to fathom how so many people underestimated him. The miscalculation of Hitler’s intentions continued past the point of no return until German Army’s had violated the sovereignty of nations and began to indiscriminately seize territory. Of course, there were those at the time who saw Hitler’s avaricious ambitions and the threat of Nazism to Europe. Unfortunately, these people were a minority. Those most cognizant of the danger did their best to warn the world, but they were not the leading politicians of that time.

One of those who understood the threat posed by Hitler was Emil Lengyel. Lengyel’s name will not be found in any textbooks or popular works of history about the interwar period. I consider myself reasonably well read on 20th century Central and Eastern European history, but I had never heard of him. I only became conscious of Lengyel’s work when I purchased a copy of The Danube, published in 1940. The Hungarian Jewish émigré who moved to the United States was a prolific journalist and scholar for half a century. His writings called attention to the calamity that would befall Europe.

Truth seeker – The Danube by Emil Lengyel

Truth Seeker – Dangerous Man in A Dangerous World
The Danube was the sixth book Lengyel had written, but it was his third book published in 1932 that garnered him a great deal of attention concerning the growing Nazi menace. In that year, he published one of the first biographies of Adolf Hitler. Lengyel’s biography was prescient because a year later Hitler rose the chancellorship of Germany. Lengyel realized the threat Hitler posed even before he took power. In turn, the German intelligence apparatus realized the threat that Lengyel posed. They banned several of his books. In 1940, the Nazis went as far as to place him on a list of people to be arrested by the Gestapo if Germany invaded and occupied Great Britain. The Germans wrongly believed that Lengyel was living in Great Britain at the time. Instead, Lengyel was safely ensconced in the United States, where he was deeply engaged in teaching and writing, chosen avocations in which he excelled.

At a time when political and economic upheavals were reordering the world in ways no one could imagine or predict in the 1920s and 30s, Emil Lengyel did his best to help others make sense of the rapidly evolving situation in international affairs. He did this first through journalism, then authored six different books between 1931 -1940 while holding teaching positions at two different universities in the New York city area. Lengyel was the rare scholar who could back up his work with real life experience. Take for instance the first book he authored, Cattle Car Express: A Prisoner of War in Siberia. Lengyel wrote this based upon his experience of spending 20 months in a Russian Prisoner of War Camp at Irbit during World War I.

The gathering storm – Nazi Party rally in 1934

Looking Down the Barrel – Causes & Conflicts
Lengyel also had intimate knowledge of the barriers Jews faced as increasing antisemitism gripped Europe after the war. Though Lengyel received a doctorate in law, he had wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but this ambition could not overcome passage of the Hungarian numerus clausus law in 1920. The law limited the number of Jews that could study at universities to reduce the growth and influence of Jews as part of the professional class. It was no coincidence that with his background, Lengyel took a special interest in the growth of dictatorship in both Hungary and its near abroad.

His recounting of the river’s history and its effect upon the development of the empires, kingdoms and nations that developed along its banks is fantastic. This includes Lengyel’s homeland. Anyone reading The Danube will understand the symbiotic relationship between Hungary and the river. His interpretation is provocative and spot-on in such sentences as, “Without the Danube Hungary would not exist.” This is just a taste of Lengyel’s brilliant powers of observation intermingled with personal experience. His intermingling of past with present proves a winning combination. The reader gets the feeling that only Lengyel could have authored this book with such depth of feeling. Furthermore, he does not shy away from confronting the looming shadow of Nazism threatening to plunge the entire Danube Basin and all the countries within it in darkness.

The threat of conflict is clear and present even where Nazism has yet to make inroads. Along the lower Danube, Lengyel writes, “One might as well try to lead a bucolic life on the rim of Vesuvius as to live peacefully in the heart of the Balkans.” In the remoter reaches of Europe’s most famous river, the cataclysm of conflict is not far away. Fortunately for Lengyel, he would not suffer the fate of so many of Hungarians during World War II. He was safely ensconced in academia, teaching at New York University. While Hungary suffered German occupation, followed by the Holocaust and finally total war, Lengyel watched the tragedy unfold from across the Atlantic. His warnings had not so much fallen on deaf ears, as the wrong ears. The politicians who could have rolled back the creeping tide of authoritarianism failed to do so. The consequence of their inaction was destruction across Europe. Just because Lengyel saw it coming, did not mean he could stop it.

Distant horizons – One of the thirty-one books written by Emil Lengyel

Distant Horizons – New Discoveries
Lengyel’s prodigious literary output continued well beyond the 1930’s in the form of books on a wide range of topics and nations. His interest in international affairs grew well beyond Europe. In 1940, he published a book on Turkey. This was part of what would become a tendency toward study of the Near East and South Asia. Lengyel authored multiple books on India, Pakistan, Egypt, and the Middle East. He still devoted time to his homeland, continuing to write books on Hungarian history as well as a biography of Lajos Kossuth. When Lengyel completed his final book in the early 1970’s, it was his thirty-first. He averaged one book every 18 months from 1931 – 1972. For a man who escaped death in the First World War and the clutches of Nazism on the fringes of World War II, it was an incredible journey. And what better way to begin a journey into Lengyel’s life and work then by joining him for a trip down the Danube.

Time Flowing Backwards – The Danube by Emil Lengyel (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #12a)

Every travel book I ever bought has offered me the dream of somewhere else I would rather be. Whether it was a guidebook or travel narrative, the books are modes of transport that can carry me away to another world. Travel books offer the ultimate in vicarious experiences providing an opportunity to explore the world through someone else’s perspective. The hope of having such an experience was what drew me to the travel section at one of my favorite used bookstores, Loganberry Books in Cleveland.

Because Cleveland has one of the largest Eastern European immigrant populations of any city in the United States, Loganberry has a broad selection of books devoted to the region. I discovered these books in the history section as a sub-category within the European genre. On my latest trip to Loganberry, I also managed to find interesting volumes on Eastern Europe in the travel section. Chief among these was The Danube by Emil Lengyel, a book, and an author with which I was unfamiliar. I would discover that the book was fascinating and the author even more so.

Paddling with a pen – Books on the Danube

Paddling with A Pen – Following the River
Anyone interested in Central and Eastern Europe must come to terms with the Danube. It is Europe’s most famous river for a reason, as it runs through four capital cities, past countless castles, and historic sites, winding its way from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. The river has inspired great works of culture, none more so than the Blue Danube Waltz by Richard Strauss. It has also lent itself as a subject for authors looking to capture its essence. The single, most famous travel book about the river is Claudio Magris’ seminal work, The Danube: A Sentimental Journey From the Source to The Black Sea. The writing is a powerful combination of history and anecdote. This lyrical account rises to the level of poetry at times. Magris’ literary skill is on full display in conveying his journey along the river into the heart of Mitteleuropa and further downriver into its lesser known, but no less fascinating reaches.

Another important work came from Nick Thorpe, who did the same journey as Magris but in reverse. This resulted in The Danube: A Journey Upriver From the Black Sea to the Black Forest, an accessible account of the river’s natural and human conditions. Other writers such as Andrew Beattie in The Danube: A Cultural History offered an account of the peoples and places found along its 2,850 kilometers (1,770 miles) length. I own copied of Magris’ and Thorpe books, along with other accounts that linked to the river such as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s multi-volume account of his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. At important junctures in those books, the Danube makes a memorable appearance. None more so than when at the opening of the Between the Woods and the Water, when Fermor crosses the Danube via the Maria Valeria Bridge, moving in a matter of minutes from Czechoslovakia into Hungary to alight in the city of Esztergom. On several other notable occasions, Fermor finds the river’s shores.

Flowing through history – Castle above the Danube River (Credit: Lyn Gateley)

On the Verge – A Changing Riverscape
I imagine that hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written about the Danube and topics related to it in a multitude of languages. While the ones listed above are some of the best-known English language works, there are many more I have overlooked. I know this from firsthand experience after purchasing The Danube by Emil Lengyel. It reminded me that illuminating history and travel writing can be found in earlier works as well. One of the more fascinating aspects of Lengyel’s book was that it not only covered the Danube’s history, it also was a part of it. Published in 1939, the book is representative of the time. When Lengyel traveled down the Danube, Central and Easter Europe were on the verge of a World War that would make entire stretches of the river off-limits to tourists for years to come. Lengyel experienced the river right before the world through which it flowed underwent irreparable change. His journey also turned out to be a homecoming.

Lengyel had been born in Budapest five years before the turn of the 20th century. He came from an upwardly mobile Hungarian Jewish family. Lengyel excelled in school and studied law at university. His studies were interrupted by the Great War, an event that would change the trajectory of his life. He did not join the army until 1915, which meant he avoided much of the deadliest fighting Austro-Hungarian forces suffered during the early months of the war, particularly in Eastern Galicia. Unfortunately, Lengyel would also find himself stationed on the Eastern Front. In 1916 the Russians unleashed the successful Brusilov offensive. Taken prisoner and transported across Russia, Lengyel ended up in Siberia confined to a prisoner of war camp.

The camps could be just as lethal as the battlefield due to limited rations and disease. During his time in the camp, Lengyel contracted malaria and his hair turned prematurely gray. About the only thing Lengyel and his fellow soldiers had a surplus of in the camp was time. He used this wisely by learning French, German, and English. Lengyel would become so proficient in the latter that he would author numerous books with it. One of his most famous works, Siberia, came out a decade and a half after his release from the camp. His writing belied an extensive knowledge born out of experience in this frigid and often misunderstood frontier land. A prisoner exchange at the end of 1917, done for soldiers in ill health, brought Lengyel’s time in Siberia to an end.

Dusting off the jacket – Emil Lengyel

Eyewitness – Taking In The Turmoil
He eventually returned to Budapest completing a doctorate in law. Interestingly, Lengyel sought work in journalism rather than law, writing for newspapers in Budapest and Vienna. He then went to the United States where he covered American affairs for European newspapers. Lengyel eventually found his way to the New York Times, as a European affairs correspondent. The position afforded him a front seat to witness the turmoil of the interwar period culminating in the rise of Hitler and Nazism, this would inform the next phase of his life and career.

Click here for: Warning Signs – The Danube by Emil Lengyel (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #12b)

Foreign Exchanges – Travels With Brian: Bulgarians & Hungarians (Eastern Europe & Me #20d)

Going to Eastern Europe is like going home. I was not born there, but I was born again there in April 2011 when I first set foot in Sofia. It was with great sadness that I could not take Brian with me on that journey or future ones. I once mentioned that he should go with me. The resignation in his voice told me all I needed to know. His relationship with the region was a combination of disinterest and mild curiosity. Sometimes he managed to surprise me with strange asides in unexpected moments. For a man who seemed indifferent about much of what I had to say about the region, he seemed strangely connected. I could never quite figure out how he came by the anecdotes and information he often shared with me about the region. A certain element of mystery to his knowledge.

There was a reason I spent almost twenty years listening to him with what can only be described as a state of near rapture. Take for instance Bulgaria, a Balkan backwater if ever there was one for Brian. At least that was what I wrongly assumed. On more than one occasion, he professed a certain affinity for Bulgarians. When I talked about traveling there, he suddenly came to life. Telling me about his interactions with a Bulgar student from a private school where his wife taught. Brian referred to her as “a lovely person.” It is not everyday you hear about a wonderful Bulgarian living in the mountains of northern Georgia (the American state, not the Eastern European nation). Praise from Brian was never profuse, so I imagine that young Bulgar’s intellect and manners must have been particularly impressive.

The Conversationalists – Sculptures in Sofia

Trivial Pursuits – The World To Us
In another conversation, Bulgaria suddenly materialized when Brian and I were discussing World War I. He often lamented the dearth of English language works of military history on the eastern and southern fronts. While discussing the less than stellar allied campaign on the Salonika Front, he mentioned how Bulgars are full of courage and fighting spirit. “We could not get anywhere against them. Look at their casualty figures, they know how to fight.” I wondered when he took the time to analyze Bulgaria’s World War I casualty figures. Brian spent most of his later years watching endless games of baseball, the television show Law and Order, and trying out various attitudes of repose. All while consuming massive quantities of leftovers late at night. This was what he affectionately referred to as, “hanging out.” His lifestyle did not stop him from summoning information from the vast storehouse of knowledge he had acquired by reading thousands of history books and scrutinizing reams of data in his 34-year career as a professional historian.

Brian’s mastery of trivial facts and sublime anecdotes could be downright shocking at times. For whatever reason I one time asked him if he knew the capital of Moldova. This was part of a pathetic attempt by me to stump him. No sooner had the question left my lips than he shot back with, “Chisinau.” I did not even bother asking him how he knew this. Chisinau is the most obscure capital city in all of Europe. I often think that Brian and I were an odd couple. These exchanges concerning Eastern Europe were the essence of our relationship. Two men brought together by a mutual affection for one another’s company while sharing strange facts that most of the world could have cared less about. Of course, those same facts meant the world to us.

Going to war – Bulgarian troops departing for the front during World War I

Preoccupations – A World Transformed
Unfortunately, Brian’s keen insights on history and the eccentricities of different ethnic groups would have been immensely entertaining, if only we could have traveled together in Eastern Europe. That was not to be. Perhaps this is why I am now sitting here eight years after his death trying to recover whatever I can from my memory of our conversations that touched on the region. Brian came of age in a world where the western world was in the ascendant and after 1989 in full blown triumphal mode. I often wonder what he would have made of democracy’s degeneration and the west’s descent into decadence. I am sure he would have found Eastern Europe’s growing influence in the European Union surprising. He would have been astonished by how the center of power in Europe is being pulled eastward by the Ukraine-Russia War, German dithering, and French foolishness. Well, maybe not the latter. He knew as well as anyone that national character informs policies.

Brian did not have much use for Eastern Europe, mainly because he had so little experience of it. The relatively few experiences he had profoundly affected his opinions of certain peoples and nations. There were a few rays of light that broke through the gray and gloom which he perceived as inherent to all places once hidden behind an iron curtain. Most prominently for him, Hungary and Hungarians were too be admired. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution had a profound effect on this opinion. Because it occurred during his formative years, Brian remembered it well. He spoke with unbridled enthusiasm for Hungarians. For him, the Hungarian rebellion against Soviet-style communism was the outgrowth of a people who had a long history fighting for their freedom. His opinion was also formed by his colleague Geza Nagy, who had been a Hungarian Army officer fighting on the Eastern Front during World War II. Nagy only survived the experience by walking back across southern Russia to Hungary, then fleeing further westward to escape the Soviet onslaught and occupation of his homeland.

Noble prospects – 1956 Hungarian Revolution

The Outsiders – Noble Prospects
Brian and Nagy were university colleagues for several years. He always spoke of Nagy with reverence. This might have influenced Brian’s opinion of my travels in Hungary. He found these of great interest. In his mind, Hungary was a noble country which fought for its independence against great odds in 1848 against the Austrians and 1956 against the Soviets. I wonder what he might have thought about Hungary’s more recent turn to one man rule and the loss of democratic norms which have given it pariah status in the European Union.

Hungarians were and are outsiders. That was probably one of the reasons Brian found them worthy of respect. He was also an outsider, an Englishman living out the last years of his life in a foreign country. I was an outsider as well. Virtually fatherless and with an alcohol problem when we first met. Back then I was a long way from my Eastern European travels, both overseas and with Brian at his home. We may never have traveled there together, but we went to so many places in our conversations that recalling them today I am still astonished. Unfortunately, my travels with Brian would eventually come to the end of the road.

Click here for: Heart of the Matter – Travels With Brian: A Transylvanian Tale (Eastern Europe & Me #20e)

“She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

On my bookshelf I have a wonderful volume called Eminent Hungarians. In it the author, Krisztian Nyary, tells the stories of Hungarians from all walks of life who became heroes through extraordinary acts of courage and perseverance. A few of these eminent personages were from the sporting world and several were Jewish. As I began to research the exploits of the Hungarian Jewish tennis star Zsuzsa Kormoczy I would not have been surprised to find a chapter dedicated to her in Nyary’s book. Her story was not included in the book, but it would have been a worthwhile addition. Kormoczy came from a tiny rural village in a relatively impoverished part of the country. She was a Hungarian Jew who managed to survive a time when they were being murdered on an industrial scale.

This petit woman, who would come to be known as “Suzy K”, excelled in a bourgeoisie sport despite playing under the watchful eyes of a Stalinist regime that considered anything formerly associated with the upper classes tantamount to treason. Kormoczy first learned to survive, and later to thrive at an advanced age, achieving tennis stardom. She did all this despite the adversity life had presented to her. Another school of thought might say her accomplishments were a product of the will and determination she had developed in overcoming numerous obstacles. After years spent overcoming discrimination, ideological conformity and injuries she found herself in the spring of 1958 on the cusp of greatness. The crowning achievement of a career which had been shadowed by so much darkness came in the City of Light, Paris.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - In action

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – In action

Courting Greatness – A New Level Of Focus & Fitness
Coming into the 1958 French Open, Zsuzsa Kormoczy’s play was nearing its peak. She had already won two clay court tournaments along the French Rivera earlier in the spring. Now Kormoczy turned her attention to the game’s only Grand Slam event played on her favorite surface, red clay. Her past results at the French were promising. The year before she had been unlucky in having to face top seeded Brit Shirley Bloomer in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was blown off the court, first by high wind gusts and then by Bloomer, managing to only win two games. She hoped 1958 would be different. Her preparation, specifically with fitness, was much more extensive than in the past. Kormoczy’s coach, Joszef Somogyi, worked her into prime shape with a training regime focused on running and gymnastics. Her fitness level would be crucial to success.

She breezed through the early rounds without any problems. Her first tough match came against Ann Haydon of Great Britain in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was sick with a cold while the left handed Haydon’s game made her suffering worse. The Brit’s game was unorthodox, a contradictory combination of looping, topspin forehands and sliced backhands. Kormoczy came from 0 -2 down to win six of the next seven games and the set. She quickly fell behind in the second set 1-4. Her strategy of throwing Haydon’s rhythm off by drawing her into the net led to a quick turnaround. Kormoczy swept the final five games to take the match 6-3, 6-4. Her semifinal match against South African Heather Segal looked like it would be a grind after it took Kormaczy ten minutes just to win the first game. This turned out to be an aberration as Kormoczy surrendered only one game the entire match, easily moving onto her first Grand Slam Final where she was to play Bloomer, the woman who had blown her out the year before.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - 1958 French Open

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – 1958 French Open Champion

Peak Performance – Springtime In Paris
Kormoczy may have been the underdog in the final, but she had one major advantage. In advancing to the title match she had yet to surrender a set. On the other hand, Bloomer had come from a set down three consecutive times just to make the final. She had to be suffering from fatigue after this trio of close calls. Once again Bloomer fell behind as Kormoczy took the opening set 6-4. Oddly enough, in the second set Kormoczy was the one feeling fatigue. As she related many years later in her autobiography, it may have been due to tiredness from nerves. Instead of expending what energy she had left in a likely losing battle in the second set, Kormoczy changed her tactics. She would cede the second set to Bloomer, but at the same time run her as much as possible in the hopes of tiring her out. The tactic worked as Kormoczy won the first five games of the deciding set. Bloomer fought back to 5-2.

In the next game, Kormoczy raced to a 40-15 lead and on her second match point she forced a long return from Bloomer. Game, set, match and French Open Championship to Zsuzsa Kormoczy. After playing international tennis on and off for two decades while surviving periodic bouts of tumult and terror she finally had reached the pinnacle of women’s tennis. At the time of her title, she was 33 years and 8 months old, making her the oldest French Open Women’s Singles Champion up to that point in history. This is a record that she still holds today. Kormoczy was a well deserving if highly improbable titlist. Self-belief carried her through all the ups and downs of a career that mirrored her life, periods of tumult followed by brilliance. In the process she became the only Hungarian female to win a Grand Slam singles title. A feat that has never been matched.

One of the All Time Greats - Zsuzsa Kormoczy

One of the All Time Greats – Zsuzsa Kormoczy

New Beginnings – Always A Champion
The 1958 French Open was not the end of Kormoczy’s career, but yet another beginning. Later in the summer she would advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon. The next year she once again advanced to the French final. She fell short in her quest for back to back titles, but went onto play several more years at the highest level, adding another title at Monte Carlo and also winning the prestigious Italian Championship. After retiring, she became a coach at Vasas, the same club where the Hungarian men’s great Balazs Taroczy played. She also led the Hungarian National Tennis Association. Kormoczy lived to the age of 84, a beloved and revered figure off the court just as much as she had been on it. After she died, Andrea Temesvari, Hungary’s second greatest female player of all time paid Kormoczy the ultimate compliment, saying “She belonged to the all-time greats.”

The Power of Perseverance – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: Hungary’s Greatest Female Tennis Player (Part One)

Many of my early memories of Eastern Europe came from watching international sporting events. Foremost among these were men’s and women’s professional tennis tournaments. The women’s events were just as interesting to me as the men’s. This was mainly due to the rivalry between the American baseliner Chris Evert and the Czechoslovakian serve and volley specialist Martina Navratilova. Navratilova usually won these highly competitive matches. She was the greatest women’s player of her time and one of the all-time greats by any standard. Due to her and Ivan Lendl I became familiar with the difficult to pronounce nation of Czechoslovakia. Both Navratilova and Lendl soared to the number one ranking and eventually became American citizens. Less well known, but no less interesting to me were the best Hungarian players of that time, Balazs Taroczy and Andrea Temesvari.

The latter was a Magyar beauty whose looks garnered her as much attention as her game. I can still recall photos of Temesvari in tennis magazines that focused on her blonde bombshell looks. Temesvari’s game never quite rose to the level of the hype around her. From an all-time high ranking of #7 in 1982, her career went through a series of fits and starts due to injury problems. In 1986 she teamed with Navratilova to win her only Grand Slam title, the French Open Doubles Championship. This was not the first time a Hungarian woman had won a title at the French Open. Forgotten by almost everyone was the first and only Hungarian woman to win a Grand Slam single’s title, Zsuzsa Kormoczy otherwise affectionately known to her family, friends and fans “Suzy K”. A Hungarian Jewish woman who managed to survive the Holocaust and triumph in the 1958 French Open.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - Hungary's Greatest Female Tennis Player

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – Hungary’s Greatest Female Tennis Player (Credit: MTI Fotó József Szécsényi)

Delayed Development – War Changes Everything
Zsuzsa Kormoczy was born in the tiny village of Pely located within the flood plain of the Tisza River. Ethnically Jewish, she came of age during the interwar period when Hungarian Jews were facing unprecedented discrimination. This did not stop her from developing into a world class tennis player. At the tender age of twelve she won the Hungarian Junior Championships. She announced her arrival in top class tennis by winning the 1940 Budapest International Tennis Tournament. She had to overcome a bad fall in the final which left blood pouring from a cut on her knee. Down 1-6, 1-4 she rallied to win the title on her 16th birthday. Slight in stature, Kormoczy relied on strong groundstrokes. She was at her best on red clay, the dominant surface in continental Europe. What should have been the prime years of her career were interrupted by the looming threat of world war. An ominous foreboding of what was to come occurred in September 1940. After leading Hungary over Yugoslavia in the Mid-European Cup, Kormoczy was not allowed to play in the final against Germany due to her Jewish ethnicity. Her career prospects looked bleak as the war spread throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Kormoczy’s development was delayed, as was that of so many others, by World War II. For five and a half years she would not play in any international tournaments. Unlike other top women’s players, Kormoczy’s life was also under threat during this time. Hungarian Jews from provincial areas were rounded up and deported to death camps in 1944. Luckily for Kormoczy her tennis skills meant she had moved far away from her home village of Pely on the Hungarian Great Plain. If she had not, more than likely the woman who would become Hungary’s greatest female tennis player would have perished at Auschwitz like hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews. She was able to keep up with her physical training while in seclusion. In 1945 she came out of hiding and with the help of her coach constructed a tennis court on which to practice. The next year she played her first international tournament in over half a decade.

Greater Things To Come– Tribulations & Titles
In 1947 Kormoczy finally made her debut at a Grand Slam tournament, advancing to the quarterfinals at the French Open. This was a preview of greater things to come on the red clay at Roland Garros. In those days, Eastern Europeans such as Kormoczy only had two opportunities per year to win a Grand Slam title – at the French Open and Wimbledon – since overseas travel was extremely limited for Hungarians (she only played the U.S. Open once in her career). Kormoczy’s play in Europe was also interrupted by the imposition of travel restrictions by the Stalinist Rakosi regime that ruled Hungary with an iron fist during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. She did not play at Roland Garros from 1949 through 1954. By this time, Kormoczy was thirty years old, a mother and had lost nearly a decade of her career to war and imposition of the Iron Curtain.

At one point during the 1950’s the Hungarian press, a mouthpiece for government propaganda, accused Kormoczy of only enjoying tennis when she played abroad. She also battled various injuries during this time. Throughout her career she suffered from chronic issues with kidney stones that would sideline her at inopportune times. Despite these tribulations she continued to persevere. Kormoczy’s resilience was nothing short of incredible and would finally pay dividends in 1958, the greatest year of tennis by a Hungarian woman in the sport’s history. Kormoczy won her first international tournament of that year in France along the Cote D’Azur. She was soon heading further east along the Mediterranean coastline to one of the most prestigious tournaments in tennis, Monte Carlo.

Coming Of Age – Right On Time
Kormoczy had already won twice at Monte Carlo, in 1948 and 1952. The 1958 women’s field was one of the toughest in the event’s history. Even a clay court player as accomplished as Kormoczy could only procure a #8 seed. In the quarterfinals she faced off against another two-time champion, the American Dottie Knode. Despite suffering the aftereffects of a toothache, Kormoczy prevailed in straight sets. In the final she downed another American, Mimi Arnold to become the first three-time women’s champion in the event’s history. Her next event would be the French Open. Historically this was the Grand Slam event where Kormoczy played her best. Two years earlier she had advanced to the semifinals. Now she was entering the French Open in top form and could be considered one of the favorites. One thing working against her was age. Kormoczy was 33 years old and no woman had ever won a title at the French anywhere close to her age. She was about to become the first.

Click here for: “She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

The War That Will Not Go Away – Geza Nagy & Damak: Honoring Mystery & Memory (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #27)

The cough that would never quite go away. It might start suddenly in the middle of a sentence, all too noticeable and near constant at times. It was a plague that kept reminding the professor from Hungary where he had been. It must have cropped up from time to time in his classes. While lecturing on medieval history he might be taken back not by his subject matter, but by the cold hand of death which had once held him in its grim clutches on the Eastern Front. I was told that the cough could be heard as though it were part of his conversation at times. He could not quite escape those grim days on the Don River during the winter of 1942-43 when the front seemed no longer to expand. This was when the Russian winter closed in and the Red Army suddenly materialized with a blizzard of bullets announcing their arrival.

The noose was drawn ever tighter as the temperature plummeted and along with it, the hopes of the Hungarian 2nd Army. He managed to somehow survive this frozen apocalypse, unlike 90% of his fellow soldiers. He pulled himself back home to Hungary, only to have to flee further westward. Finally, he made it to safety, only to find that safety was just an illusion. The wounds of war were buried deep in his lungs,  an infection could never be expunged. For the cough he caught on the Eastern Front would haunt him for the rest of his life. A life he lived far from a Hungarian homeland he would never see again.

A long way from home – Hungarian soldiers in the Soviet Union during World War 2

A Legend In Name Only – Final Journey
It was the last half of the last day of our last journey before Christmas. We had hesitantly put Central Slovakia behind us, extending our trip in the country for as long as possible. After crossing into Hungary, we had delayed our arrival in Debrecen with a stop to walk the grounds at Edeleny Palace, enjoying the splendid sight of Baroque architecture at its most refined. Now one last delay beckoned. Unlike other travel delays, which usually sent me into sighs of exasperation, this was one I eagerly looked forward to experiencing. We would make a detour to Damak, a village of just 250 people, 30 kilometers north of Miskolc for an improbable visit to a place I knew nothing about.

There was only one reason for coming here. I wanted to see the hometown of a man who was famous only to me. A man I never knew, who died when I was seven years old. He was not related to me in anyway and everything I knew about him came from someone who had only known him during the last part of his life. Stories had been passed along to me in conversation, stories that I found by turns, fascinating and frightening. The man who told me those stories had also died, only five months before. We had not spoken about the Hungarian from Damak in years, but the memory of those conversations was committed to my memory forever.

Research had given me some hard facts about the man. His hometown of Damak in northeastern Hungary. A pan-European education that took him to Heidelburg University and the Sorbonne. Rounding out his education with a doctorate in Philosophy and International Law at Hungarian University. His service as an officer in the Hungarian Army on the Eastern Front. His postwar flight to Austria. Crossing the Atlantic to Canada and working for Interpol. Finally ending up as a Professor of History at Western Carolina University. I gleaned all this from his obituary, which I read and reread several times. I vowed that if I was ever anywhere near Damak, I would take the time to visit the village. As much to honor my curiosity as to honor his memory.

Homeland – Landscape near Damak (Credit: Istvan Baggins)

Permanent Exile – Passing Through History
It was 2014 and thirty-seven years had elapsed since Geza Nagy’s intriguing and tumultuous life had come to an end in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. By the time he died, Nagy had not been in Hungary since the end of World War II. He lived the last three decades of his life abroad. Nagy could never go back home, so I went back to Damak for him. On this winter’s day, the sky was overcast, but the sun kept threatening to break through. Sometimes the weather acts as a metaphor for a journey. In this case, the rays of hope were hidden behind clouds. At some point the clouds might part and all would be revealed.

The drive from Edeleny to Damak was pleasant enough. On either side of the narrow, rural roadway, low hills and fallow fields unfolded. The scenery was austere. The golden fields of wheat, which rise from this land during the summer, were in hibernation until the change of seasons. Damak was hidden somewhere behind the sloping hills. Driving along, I doubted many people come to Damak, but I am sure there are many people from Damak. In other words, many leave and never return. One of these was Geza Nagy. He had a good reason not to return. Going back to Damak would have meant imprisonment or worse. This was because an officer of the Hungarian Army, who had been a participant in the invasion of the Soviet Union, would have been a wanted man. When the Red Army invaded Hungary in 1944 no one knew that it would be the start of a forty-five year occupation. The occupation would outlast Nagy.

Geza Nagy spent the last three decades of his life in permanent exile. This led him first to Canada and then the United States. His time in the latter brought Nagy to my attention. Otherwise, I would never have known about him. Nagy was as much myth as man to me. What I knew of him came courtesy of the man I would call my father figure. He had worked with Nagy at Western Carolina University where they both taught history. The latter was a subject that Nagy not only knew, but also lived through. History had given Nagy a career. It had also nearly killed him. He must have dodged death innumerable times while walking back to Hungary from the blizzard ravaged steppe of southern Russia during the Second World War. He was lucky to live so long after the war. Tragically, it was not long enough to return home.

More than a memory – Monument in Damak for those who died in the World Wars (Credit: Tothh417)

Iron Curtains – You Can Never Go Home Again
It is ironic that Geza Nagy lived the last decade of his life in the same mountains of western North Carolina that produced American writer Thomas Wolfe. It was Wolfe who coined the phrase, “You can never go home again” in his seminal work, Look Homeward Angel. Geza Nagy could never go home to Damak. It was hidden behind an Iron Curtain kept in place by an iron fist. It must have been a great sorrow for him. At some point he must have realized that Hungary was closed forever to him. In this, he was no different from thousands of other Hungarians who lived out their lives in places they could never have imagined.

When my wife and I drove into Damak, it slumbered beneath a grey sky. The curtains were drawn in the cube shaped houses painted a wide range of fading pastels. I doubt Damak had changed that much since the war ended. It had a small store for groceries and not much more. I had no idea if the home Nagy grew up in still existed, but I searched for his spirit in the village. The closest I came was at a monument to those from Damak who had tragically lost their lives fighting in the First and Second World Wars. There were an alarming number of names on the monument for such a small village. Geza Nagy’s was not one of them. He did not lose his life, instead he lost his homeland. There was no monument or memory of that event. A man of history, he faded into it. On this day the streets of Damak were quiet. The ghost of Geza Nagy was not to be found. All I could do was reflect on all that has been lost and will never be found.

Click here for: Bordering On Obsession – Curtici Railway Station: Further Down The Line (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #28)

Mysticism, Fanaticism and Mayhem – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part Two)

Have you ever met one of those people who could charm the socks off strangers? The kind of person who could sell ocean front property in the middle of Russia to people who ought to know better. The kind of person you know is lying and yet you continue to believe in them when they have given you every indication otherwise. The kind of person you know is headed for disaster and you know that they know they are headed for disaster and yet continues to head down the road of no return because they just can’t help it. And the entire time they have convinced themselves of whatever the truth happens to be in their own deluded mind.

People like this usually fall under a range of classifications, including charlatans, grifters and sociopaths. If you have ever known someone like this, than you probably have a rough idea of what Ignaz Trebitsch- Lincoln was like. He was utterly convincing and uniquely depraved. He was terribly dishonest and fueled by self-belief. He was on the fringes of society and not far from the levers of power. He was ridiculous and supercilious. In short, he was a synthesis of mysteriously persuasive powers. Ones that carried him from a provincial Hungarian town to far off lands where he would sniff around the corridors of power. Ultimately, Trebitsch-Lincoln was a huckster who died far from a home he never really had.

Seeing into the future – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln (Credit: K Koller – Wikimedia Commons)

Many Unhappy Returns – Less Than Brilliant Coups
World War I did not really end in central and eastern Europe in the autumn of 1918. Conflict continued to simmer from Germany to Hungary and all points eastward for several years. Revolutions sprouted and rotted on the vine, militias formed and flashed in a blaze of false glory before imploding, right and left wing movements rose and fell in the face of whatever was fashionable at the time. Democracy, autocracy, and dictatorship vied for supremacy. In this world, refugees scrounged for survival. Some were better suited than others to survive, and in a few cases thrive amid this precarious situation. Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln was one of the latter. After he was released from prison in Great Britain, Trebitsch-Lincoln made his way to Germany where an extremely shaky democratic government was struggling to fend off bids for power from the far right. Trebitsch-Lincoln sniffed out an opportunity with insurgents led by a Prussian journalist and civil servant, Wolfgang Kapp. Others involved were the former German army commander, Erich von Ludendorf and an obscure fanatic by the name of Adolf Hitler.

The Kapp Putsch as it became known, led to a two day takeover of the German government.  Trebitsch-Lincoln got himself a position as Press Secretary. In the process, he managed to meet Hitler, but the coup fell apart before the putschists could solidify their grip on power. This sent Trebitsch-Lincoln back to Austria and Hungary, in search of other right wingers who might pave a path to power. In these countries, the White International was a pro-militarist and uber nationalist organization. They had arisen in response to the threat of communism, which at least in Hungary was more than just an existential threat after the Red Republic of Bela Kun rose and fell in 1919. The Whites blamed Jews and Socialists for the postwar chaos and harsh terms of the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon.

None of this mattered to Trebitsch-Lincoln who long ago had eschewed his Judaism and sought out extreme rightists as kindred spirits. In his birth land of Hungary they had committed unspeakable atrocities against Jews on several occasions, something Trebitsch-Lincoln ignored. His hatred was reserved for the British, who along with the other Allies had imposed what he felt was an unduly harsh peace on the losing Central Powers. Trebitsch-Lincoln managed to wiggle his way into managing the White International forces archival documents which he proceeded to not so secretly sell to foreign governments. He was put on trial for treason in Austria and acquitted of the crime. With assassins in Hungary on his trail, Trebitsch-Lincoln had to flee abroad once again.

The bitter end- Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln as Chao Kung

Re-Oriented – On An Eastern Path
Trebitsch-Lincoln had worn out his welcome in almost every country in Europe where he had spent any length of time. Thus, it is not surprising that he decided to go further abroad than he ever had before. He made his way to China, a land beset by warring factions. It did not take long for Trebitsch-Lincoln to insinuate himself into the good graces of several warlords. As usual, Trebitsch-Lincoln did not manage to pick the winning side. He soon turned from martial to spiritual affairs when he made another head spinning about face in converting to Buddhism. This was probably the strangest and most improbable of the various guises he assumed during his life. Trebitsch-Lincoln never did anything halfway, he was a man who went to extremes and so it was with his newfound fondness for Buddhism. He rose from monk to abbot, took the name of Chao Kung, demanded that his followers turn over all their possessions to him and spent an inordinate amount of time seducing nuns.

Even by Trebitsch-Lincoln’s admittedly strange standards this was a spectacular turn towards the exotic. He took to his new role with zeal, traveling back to the west where he taught Buddhism. Whether or not Trebitsch-Lincoln believed in what he was preaching is an unanswerable question. What mattered was that he could get others to believe in him. And despite all his lies and fraudulent behavior, Trebitsch-Lincoln always believed in himself. Of course, Trebitsch-Lincoln could not help but involve himself in political intrigues, especially after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. A militaristic, authoritarian government was just the type of thing that piqued Trebitsch-Lincoln’s interest. He now viewed the Japanese as the best hope to rid Asia of the British Empire. His hatred for Britain only grew worse after his son, who was still living there, ended up getting executed for his role in a drunken robbery. Marrying his hatred of the British with his spiritual acumen, Trebitsch-Lincoln claimed that he was the successor to the Dalai Lama. This was a stretch even by his standards. A planned triumphal trip to Tibet went nowhere.

Spirited work – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln as Chao Kung

A Remarkable Failure – The Last Legacy
It was not long before Trebitsch-Lincoln was back at it again with another ultra-right wing movement. In a sort of odd throwback to his time in Germany two decades earlier, Trebitsch-Lincoln began to scheme for some way to get in with the Nazis. Mysticism was the bizarre currency in which he now traded. Trebitsch-Lincoln contacted the German attache in Tokyo in a bid to help him negotiate a meeting with Hitler. At this meeting, Trebitsch-Lincoln wanted to persuade Hitler to end the World War. To prove his otherworldly powers, Trebitsch-Lincoln planned on having three wise men of Tibet come out of a wall at the meeting. Incredibly, a message with this information was sent to Berlin. It was angrily rejected.

Trebitsch-Lincoln’s antics were too much, even for fanatics like the Nazis. He was seen as an exotic charlatan who was of no value to them. For that matter, he was of no value to much of anyone as the war continued. He fell ever deeper into obscurity. Just as strange as his life was Trebitsch-Lincoln’s death. For a man who had spent much of his life causing consternation and controversy, he succumbed to a strangely banal fate at Shanghai in 1943, dying from a stomach ailment while living at the Shanghai YMCA. Perhaps he was poisoned, perhaps he died of natural causes. Truth was something that did not go well with Trebitsch-Lincoln’s life. He was mourned by few and later remembered for a remarkable life that ultimately ended far from a Hungarian homeland for which he never really cared. All his adventures in politics, religion, spying and mysticism eventually came to nothing. The same could not be said for his astonishing life, which if nothing else, proves that anything is possible.

Click here for: Anything Is Possible – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part One)

A Perpetual Hangover – Keleti Station: (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #2)

The night train to Transylvania. The phrase has darkly romantic connotations. There was another shorter and snappier way of summing up the journey that stood before me and my wife on that March night, Budapest to Brasov. We could be transported from the pulsating heart of the Hungarian capital to the eastern edge of Transylvania in a single night. Such phrases have a way of firing the imagination and setting the traveler on a course for adventure. With phrases like these floating in my head, I was ready to start my own adventure or travel agency. The fact that such a trip was as easy as booking a couple of tickets in a two berth sleeper and alighting at Keleti Station (Keleti Palyudvar) in Budapest just after the sun went down seemed almost too good to be true. And as we all know for vast amounts of experience, if something is too good to be true, then it is.

Night trains and Keleti, where do I start. How about with the word mysterious? Night trains conjure up images of locomotives cloaked in a cloud of steam, pulling out of a station under the cover of night. Soon there are spies, strangers and sultry affairs taking place. Murder on the Orient Express is waiting somewhere down the line. As an antidote for the mysterious, Keleti Station does rather well, if not for the fact that it makes a wonderful stand in for the seedy. “Past its prime” is a phrase that the station most often arouses. In the evening, that effect only increases. Though its exterior has recently been redone in an immaculate re-conception, the interior often wreaks of cold coffee and unfiltered cigarettes. There are always a handful of creepy ne’er do wells in the dissolute bars and bufes that can be found a stone’s throw from the main arrival hall.

Waiting on the Night Train - Keleti Station at dusk

Waiting on the Night Train – Keleti Station at dusk

A Loss Of Innocence – Repulsive Admiration
Keleti in the early evening is like a perpetual hangover that makes you pay for all the fun you had in the past. And if the station stands for one thing, it is the past. The charm of faded glory is everywhere, in the frescoes of Karoly Lotz and the arches fringing the main halls. Look up and it is 1900 all over again, look down and someone is bumming cigarettes or begging for a cheap thrill. The place can feel downright dangerous at times, not from violence, but the loss of innocence that someone might find waiting in its darker corners. On this night, that would not be a problem for us. All we had to do was wait until our train was ready for departure. Arriving early at Keleti gave me an opportunity to observe the underbelly of Hungarian society in a relatively safe manner. To watch a world that fascinates and repels me in equal measure.

I listened to the inflections of unintelligible conversations among a host of seedy characters creeping around the corridors. One man sat in an ill lit, sort of pseudo pub and talked non-stop with another man. I got the feeling that this was a career move. Unlike death, this career path only prolonged the suffering. The act of hanging out in such places had transformed these men into hangers on. Looking at the parade of outcasts and misfits that pervaded the handful of establishments at Keleti made me wonder what kept men like these going. Their entire way of living could be characterized as under the table. Maybe there was a lesson here, anyone with a hint of ambition was either arriving at or departing from Keleti. Staying behind was the surest way of falling into a dissolute lifestyle. Yet there was a part of me that could not help but feel twinges of repulsive admiration.

A Perpetual Hangover - Keleti Station in Budapest

A Perpetual Hangover – Keleti Station in Budapest

“I Will Survive” – To Defeat An Army
If this had been the United States I would have feared for my life, but since it was Hungary, I found the wait entertaining. Probably the most dangerous thing, outside of petty theft, that anyone can experience at Keleti is a trip to the toilet. Touching any of the surfaces inside would be tempting tetanus or worse. When entering, an overwhelming odor immediately invades the nostrils. Imagine something akin to a mix of urine, aged disinfectant and mildew as old as the station itself. This smell could defeat an army. In an act of self-preservation, I always remind myself to take the first stall and ignore anyone or anything that may be lurking a door or two down. After a minute or two at most, I am ready to make my escape. The song “I will survive” should be the universal anthem of Keleti’s toilet facilities.

The females at Keleti are a study in contrasts when compared to all the surrounding depravity. Those who are there for departure arrive a few minutes before the appointed time with their hair pulled back and a laser like focus. They are impervious to anything other than their carriage and seat assignments. Budapest to Brasov means very little to them. They are more likely to be headed home to God, Mad or Papa (all real towns in Hungary). The other women to watch are those manning the stalls selling flashy magazines, less than fresh baked goods, acidic coffee, tasteless bubble gum and so forth. These women are dutiful, tough, semi-polite and ready to destroy the untrustworthy with one look. They know what it takes to survive. I want them on my side in the next war.

A Loss of Innocence - A Corridor at Keleti Station

A Loss of Innocence – A Corridor at Keleti Station (Credit: Linie29)

Hope & Human Nature – The Night Train
Still on that evening, I had to admit that there is something brilliant about Keleti. All the grime and decay tends to vanish when you stand before the illuminated arrival and departures board searching for the one place calling your name. Just beyond it, trains are getting ready to surge out through the city, into the countryside, to rendezvous with an obscure destiny. Keleti is a place filled with hope and human nature. The decadent will always have a home, as will the grandiose. With Budapest to Brasov getting ready to depart, the night train to Transylvania was in our immediate future, but the memory of an evening at Keleti is what will always remain.

Click here for: Objects of Intense Desire – Bory and Tarodi Castles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #3)

(Note: Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny is an intermittent series on places in Eastern Europe that have made a lasting impression upon me)