“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)

A Sublime Brush With Fate – Endre Kabos: The Fall Of A Master Fencer (Part Two)

Endre Kabos was a master with the saber, able to overcome both world class competition and prejudicial barriers that failed to defeat him. He managed to become both an Olympic and World Champion while facing resistance at home and abroad. Kabos managed to overcome all opposition in the sport, mentally, physically and technically. Anti-Jewish sentiment was rife in Europe during the 1930’s, but Kabos enjoyed a charmed decade. In a six year period beginning with the 1930 European Championships, Kabos won an average of one Gold Medal a year at those competitions. Winning in Europe during that time was akin to winning the world championship.

He was also part of gold medal winning saber teams at consecutive Olympics. The mid-1930’s was the best of times for Kabos in a professional sense. Personally, the situation was less than desirable for Kabos. He struggled with financial issues and anti-Semitism. At one point, Kabos had to eschew his professional fencing career just to make ends meet. He took to running a grocery store before wealthy patrons provided funding for him to continue pursuing his passion for fencing. This allowed Kabos to focus once again on the sport. That focus was imperative when he traveled to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics which was supposed to be a display of Aryan athletic prowess. Kabos had other ideas.

The Master - Endre Kabos at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Master – Endre Kabos at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

A Winning Effort -Triumph of The Will
The 1936 Berlin Olympics is most often remembered for the athletic exploits of Jesse Owens, the African-American sprinter and long jumper. Owens won four gold medals, exposing the hollowness of Nazi claims that non-Aryan races were inferior. Owens’ fame was rightfully deserved. Another group that the Nazis looked down on also managed to prove that the Third Reich’s claims to racial superiority were patently false. Jews medaled in several sports at the Berlin Olympics and Hungarian Jews were at the forefront of these achievements. Endre Kabos and five other Hungarian Jewish athletes put the lie to the blatant racist ideology of the Nazis. In all, thirteen Jewish athletes medaled at the Berlin Olympics. Kabos’ greatest feat at the games and quite possibly of his career, was winning the individual gold medal in the saber event at the 1936 Olympics.

He achieved this result despite having to deal with the overt prejudice symbolized by the German government. Kabos was uniquely equipped to cope. The experience in Berlin was nothing new for him. Anti-semitism was already encoded into Hungarian law. Kabos and other Jewish athletes had been battling racism for years due to the pro-Nazi, Hungarian government that took power during the 1930’s. The difference with Kabos was that he showed a great amount of courage by not saying silent. He spoke out regarding the plight of Jewish athletes competing at the 1936 Olympics. He stated the Hungarian Jews competing “will fight not only for universal Hungarian nationhood and pride in Berlin but we Jewish sportsmen, must and want to show the image of Jewish power and virtue.” It was a courageous stand that certainly did not hurt Kabos’ performance.

Hungary’s involvement in World War II signaled a traumatic turn for the worse in Kabos’ life. He would manage to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. Unfortunately, he found himself in a labor camp instead. The latter could be almost as harsh, with prisoners working in deplorable conditions. Kabos was sent to a camp in Vax, Hungary. This may have saved his life for the time being. He did manage to make it out of the camp alive, but the war was still far from over. Reports differ on whether he was released so he could perform another job or escaped to the underground resistance. Whatever the case, Kabos was in Budapest during the autumn of 1944. The front lines were creeping ever closer to the city as the Red Army began to encircle Budapest. One of the nastiest sieges of the war would soon begin. Kabos would not live long enough to see it.

Paying homage to a champion - An opponent shaking hands with Endre Kabos (on the left)

Paying homage to a champion – An opponent shaking hands with Endre Kabos (on the left)

Crossing Over – On The Verge of Collapse
Some of the most tragic, fascinating and surreal images from the Battle of Budapest involve the destruction of the city’s bridges over the Danube River. Images in the battle’s aftermath are haunting. They show such iconic structures as the Liberty and Chain Bridges half submerged, with their upper parts eerily protruding above the waterline. Strangely enough, the first bridge to suffer damage occurred before the siege began. Margaret Bridge not only connects both sides of the city, it is also attached to Margaret Island. In the autumn of 1944, German commanders decided to have the bridge mined in order to quickly destroy it when the Red Army closed in on the city center. This was the plan, but the execution was flawed. The mining occurred in early November.

While this was still in progress, Endre Kabos happened to be on the bridge. Various accounts state that he was either driving a horse drawn carriage that was carrying supplies or in a munitions truck on November 4th. Up to that point, Kabos had sidestepped death. This was no small feat. He could have been shipped off to Auschwitz instead of a labor camp. He could have been a pawn in the deadly game of genocide through no fault of his own. Luck was on his side, until the moment that it was not. Vehicles and pedestrians were crossing the bridge on November 4th when an accidental explosion ripped through the bridge’s eastern end. Some of the explosives discharged prematurely with dire effects.

When this occurred, Endre Kabos was crossing the bridge. The vehicle he was in afforded him little protection. Kabos, along with hundreds of other innocents was killed. His remains were never found. Hungary’s famed Olympic fencing champion had battled world class competitors and anti-Semitism, always managing to come out on top. Tragically, he could not survive a sublime brush with fate. In a matter of moments his life was over. It was a sad ending for a great champion. The fate of Kabos was soon forgotten as an apocalyptic struggle for Budapest soon began.

Ready for Action - Endre Kabos champion fencer

Ready for Action – Endre Kabos champion fencer

A Driving Force – Rising To The Challenge
Endre Kabos died too soon, but few would ever match his records in international competition. Kabos left behind a legacy of excellence despite a star-crossed life filled with hardship. He struggled financially while laboring in a sport where he and his fellow Hungarian Jews were treated with ill intent. Perhaps It was this adversity that made him into an even greater champion. His fencing exploits helped him gain acceptance as well as self-fulfillment. Kabos was oppressed and overlooked, but this failed to defeat him. Instead, adversity drove him. All the way to the top of the fencing world.

The Crosshairs of History – Endre Kabos: Fencing & Fighting For Acceptance (Part One)

His remarkable sporting career started in legendary fashion and his life ended in disaster. Endre Kabos experienced both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, reflective of a period in Hungarian history fraught with conflict. Kabos was a Hungarian Olympic Champion fencer, he was also Jewish. This mattered a great deal during his rise to prominence during the interwar period. The prime of his fencing career coincided with the most virulent strain of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe. Hungary was not immune, if anything the country had helped raise the infection rate by being one of the first Eastern European nations to pass discriminatory anti-Jewish laws in 1920.

The majority of Hungarian Jews ended up in the crosshairs of history and met a terrible fate during the Holocaust. Those who did not die in concentration or forced labor camps found themselves almost completely marginalized. Unless someone had luck, money or skill, in some cases they needed all three, their lives would be left on the cutting room floor. it was hard not to avoid a tragic fate. Kabos’ life offers a striking example of how fate and luck played a role in who lived and who died. Not even one of the greatest sportsmen in Hungary could avoid being blown away by the winds of an all consuming war.

A Master At Work - Endre Kabos (on the right) fencing

A Master At Work – Endre Kabos (on the right) fencing

The Art Of Dueling – Swords of Honor
Good fortune is one, but not the only way to explain Endre Kabos’ meteoric rise to the top of the fencing world, specifically in the sabre event, a competition that Hungarians dominated at the Olympic level for forty years. Kabos was one in a long line of Hungarian saber wielding masters that managed to take home every gold medal in the Olympics during a forty year period that stretched from 1924 to 1964. Kabos story is particularly fascinating because early in life he did not seem slated for a career in fencing. Fortune smiled on him more than once during his formative years. Kabos got a late start in the sport, more by luck than anything else. The late start is the stuff legends are made of.

As the story goes, the teenaged Kabos received a fencing outfit for his birthday from a close friend of his family. When some of his friends came across the apparel, they teased him mercilessly for being the owner of such a ridiculous costume. Kabos did not take the hazing lightly, it is said that he joined a fencing club the next day. This, coupled with preternatural ability, started his rise to fame as a fencer. A second stroke of luck soon followed due to what turned out to be an even more improbable occurrence. The story that follows has been confirmed by several historians of the sport. It involves Kabos’ father, a portly middle-aged man who got himself in a duel after an argument. Unfortunately for the elder Kabos, the man he had fallen out with was a master duelist who not only liked to disarm his opponents, but then follow it up by killing them. This did not bode well for the father.

He sought immediate assistance from master fencing coach, Italo Santelli, an Italian who had moved to Budapest many years before. Santelli had trained many Hungarian Olympic and World Champions in the saber class. He remained a legendary figure in the sport, with a reputation that preceded him. Santelli was more responsible than any single person for the superior skill level shown by an entire generation of Hungarian fencers with the saber at international competitions. His knowledge and ability to transfer that knowledge to his students was said to be unmatched. Unfortunately, for the elder Kabos his duel was to occur the day after he first engaged Santelli.

Sabering the Moment - Italo Santelli

Sabering the Moment – Italo Santelli

Settling Scores – A Near Deadly Affair
The master teacher was honest with his newest student. He could hardly teach the father more than one or two moves in just a couple of hours. Nonetheless, Santelli offered some sage advice. He knew the master duelist and his fencing tactics well. Santelli believed there might be an opportunity at the beginning of the duel for the elder Kabos to strike while his opponent went to disarm him. Santelli thought it was a long shot, but worth a try. Santelli also cleverly surmised that the master duelist would be overconfident. How could he not be? His opponent was an overweight novice with a lack of experience in such deadly affairs. Little did Santelli know at the time of this first meeting, that he was cultivating a relationship with the Kabos family that provide him with one of his star pupils.

On the day of the duel, Santelli was shocked to see the father come striding in to see him. He had not only survived, but using Santelli’s tactical advice, managed to slice the hand of the master duelist entirely off. That had settled the issue once and for all time. He was enthralled with Santelli to the point that he asked the master to train his son, Endre, in wielding the saber. Santelli’s influence on the younger Kabos was profound. By the late 1920’s Endre Kabos was fulfilling his promise when he won his first major competition, the 1928 Slovakian Championships. In the years that would follow, he would become one of the greatest Hungarian fencers in history.

Fighting For Honor & Acceptance - Endre Kabos

Fighting For Honor & Acceptance – Endre Kabos

Gaining Acceptance – A Fight To The Finish
What would drive Endre Kabos to greatness? It would be a combination of Santelli’s coaching, natural talent and good luck. There was also another unquantifiable quality, one that should not be underestimated. A select group of Hungarian Jews, of which Endre Kabos was one, saw fencing as an opportunity to gain acceptance and prove themselves to the nation. Following Hungary’s loss in World War I, a red (communist) revolution and a nasty counter-revolution, Jews had been under attack in Hungary. Anti-semitism was no longer veiled. Whether because of or despite this, men such as Endre Kabos set out to prove themselves to their compatriots as well as sporting officials who treated them as second class citizens. This likely spurred Kabos on to greater sporting achievements, both at home and abroad in the years to come.

Click here for: A Sublime Brush With Fate – Endre Kabos: The Fall Of A Master Fencer (Part Two)

A Life & Death’s Work – Edmund Veesenmayer: Adding Up The Numbers (Part 2)

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” While this infamous quote is attributed to Josef Stalin. It also expressed the working philosophy of Edmund Veesenmayer. The German plenipotentiary in occupied Hungary during World War II, Veesenmayer was involved in some of the most sinister calculations known to history. He spent the war working assiduously on a type of addition by subtraction, a formula that added up to the Holocaust, first in Croatia and then in Hungary. If there was one thing he knew for sure, it was the value of numbers. Veesenmayer had been awarded a doctorate in economics earlier in his career, but by 1944 he had become a different kind of economist. One whose calculations belied the most murderous of intentions.

Facing the past – Mug shot of Edmund Veesenmayer (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum courtesy of Robert Kempner)

Deadly Impact – Bureaucrat Without A Conscious
Consider the following figures, “289,357 Jews in 92 complete trains of 45 cars.” Veesenmayer supplied these numbers to his superiors in mid-June 1944. He authored this correspondence while representing the Reich in Hungary. The calculations were done for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency and in the interests of the Final Solution to the Jewish question.  The number of Jews was the precise total of those being deported from the Hungarian ruled portions of Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. This was both the start and the finish. The start of the astronomically high numbers of Hungarians in 1944 who would be shipped to concentration camps. The finish took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other similar sites where most of the deported Jews were murdered a few minutes after their arrival.

Edmund Veesenmayer’s role in this endgame was crucial. The fact that he is hardly known does not lessen the deadly impact of his actions in Hungary. When studying the Holocaust, there is an understandable focus on the camps where so many Jewish lives were irrevocably lost. This ignores the role of men like Veesenmayer who at different points during the war occupied offices in Zagreb and Budapest. This was where he ensured that Jews were rounded up and deported. Veesenmayer was both fellow traveler and true believer, one of those who made the Nazi ideal a reality. His position as plenipotentiary in Hungary invested him with an incredible amount of authority. He used this power to ensure that the Final Solution was carried out with a thoroughness that could have only pleased his superiors.

Veesenmayer was loyal to the Third Reich at all costs. The price of his ambition and loyalty was paid in full by others. Primarily the countless innocents who had their lives taken from them. Veesenmayer was a bureaucrat without a conscious, always ready to put pen to paper, enumerating the numbers of deported for his superiors. He knew all too well that those who were getting shipped to the camps would soon be murdered. In doing this Veesenmayer was not just following orders, he was also following his own beliefs. By the end of 1944, he had the equivalent of an ocean of blood on his hands, but the vicissitudes of the postwar world would ensure that Veesenmayer’s story was largely written in invisible ink. It is there, but you must look hard to find it.

Standing trial – Edmund Veesenmayer in Nuremburg

A Numbers Game – The Holocaust By Another Name
Edmund Veesenmayer was nothing if not thorough. Details mattered to him. Numbers were a way of expressing those details. From the very beginning of both his professional and political career, numbers had played a vital role. Economics was a numbers game, one that he used to secure for himself a doctorate. Politics was also a numbers game. Veesenmayer’s affiliation with the Nazi party was secured in 1932 when he became member #873.780. Two years later he gained another notable number. #202.122, this was his membership in the SS, the same organization that would oversee concentration and extermination camps. For Veesenmayer membership numbers were just as important to his life as the numbers tattooed on Jews in concentration camps were important to their enslavement. Both were markers of a deadly identity. In the darkest of ironies, these numbers were something both perpetrators and powerless had in common.

In the end, the Holocaust was a numbers game. The numbers that mattered most to Veesenmayer were those of the Jews in the Hungarian countryside (anywhere outside of Budapest) that he had helped deport. It was a matter of life and death. Life for his beloved Third Reich and death to those who he believed were working to undermine a world the Nazis were creating. Veesenmayer was a vital cog in the administrative apparatus that streamlined genocide. He was a careerist in the worst sense of the word, but his career prospects vanished in the maelstrom that consumed Nazi Germany during the final months of World War II. Others paid a higher price for their innocence than Veesenmayer did for his actions. The bill for those actions finally came due after he was captured by the Allies in 1945. For his troubles, Veesenmayer was placed on the stand in the next to last of the twelve war crimes trials in Nuremberg. Known as the Ministries Trial, cases were brought against those who had worked for Reich ministries and were held responsible for the countless atrocities committed on their watch either in Germany or abroad.  

A henchman in Hungary – Edmund Veesenmayer

Order of Magnitude – Counting Crimes
Veesenmayer was tried on six different counts for various war crimes. He was convicted on two of these counts, Count Six: War crimes and Crimes Against Humanity; Count Seven: Membership in a criminal organization. His infamy was assured, though he would remain largely anonymous in postwar Europe. Keeping a low profile paid off for Veesenmayer. The fact that he had worked closely with Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi’s chosen administrator of the Final Solution in Budapest, meant that Veesenmayer could well have been sentenced to execution. Instead, he got off light considering the actions he took in both Croatia and Hungary. The evidence against Veesenmayer was damning. Here was a case where the devil could be found in hundreds of thousands of details documented with the same type of Teutonic thoroughness that the Nazi death machine relied upon. Veesenmayer was part of 21 former Nazi officials put on trial. The fact that only two of the other defendants received as harsh a sentence as Veesenmayer is telling. His crimes and culpability were of much greater magnitude than almost all the other defendants.

Befitting a man of numbers, Veesenmayer was given a final one to work with by the court. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, but soon that number was reduced to ten years. In mid-December 1951, Veesenmayer was released after a United States official intervened on his behalf. He was suddenly a free man and far from a dead one at this point in his life. He had another twenty-six years to live. Being an ex-Nazi, let alone an ex-prisoner, did not mean Veesenmayer would be shunned. On the contrary, he soon found gainful employment. First in Tehran and then in northern France, Veesenmayer represented a German trading company. He would eventually retire and live in West Germany until his death in 1977. There were no gallows for Veesenmayer. He never faced a firing squad nor any other form of execution. The verdict on Veesenmayer is equivocal. Considering his crimes. he got off rather easy. It could have been worse, much worse for him. Veesenmayer took the stand as a defense witness for his former colleague in crime, Adolf Eichmann in 1961, he must have realized that his freedom was a close call. He had managed to escape prison and execution. Eichmann would not be that lucky.

A Henchman in Hungary – Edmund Veesenmayer: War By Another Name (Part One)

Several years ago, while searching through the stacks at the library of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, I happened upon a temporary exhibit by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A Deadly Medicine: Creating The Master Race told the story of Nazi Germany’s program to cleanse its population of those who were considered biologically harmful to German society. Among the many startling truths revealed in the exhibit, there was one that lodged itself in my memory. I can still recall to this very day reading how almost all the program’s perpetrators were never brought to justice. To say I was shocked, would be an understatement. Like most people, I assumed the black and white photographs taken of leading Nazis in the courtroom at Nuremburg were a reference to justice ultimately being done. The most infamous among them were convicted and sentenced to death. Others a rung or two lower on the leadership ladder, but who committed countless crimes were dealt with quite differently.

Many of these were men who held important roles in medical programs that murdered German society’s less fortunate members. The latter were deemed undesirable due to disability, age or whatever other ailments Nazi racial doctrines considered a corruption of the Aryan race. Later, it would be Jews and Slavs who would be given the same types of treatment. Deadly medicine was administered in greater and greater doses. These murderous excesses would eventually manifest themselves in the industrialized killing that occurred in concentration camps. The Deadly Medicine exhibit left me disconcerted. It was bad enough that such a murderous program had run rampant through German society, but even worse was the fact that those responsible for the program had either been given light punishments or were eventually released back into German society. How could this have been allowed to happen? It would not be the last time I was forced to ask myself that question.

The Face of War – Edmund Veesenmayer (Credit: Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1993-021)

A Life Against Humanity – The Unknown Killer
It is almost unfathomable for the human brain to comprehend the crimes committed by Nazi officials in Germany, followed by those in foreign lands and finally the Holocaust. The fact that one of the most cultured civilizations in human history could descend into unspeakable evil in less than a decade is mind boggling. Trying to wrap one’s head around what happened after the war ended is just as difficult. Many Nazi officials got off with little more than a slap on the wrist. The Nuremberg Trials only dealt with the most famous perpetrators. They were symbols and sacrifices to show the world that the denazification of postwar Germany was proceeding apace. The trials were window dressing, acts of partial justice obscuring the harsh truth that some of the worst offenders were never held to account. Many of the men on trial managed to escape with light sentences considering the multitude and venality of their crimes.

This brings us to the case of Edmund Veesenmayer, a Nazi troubleshooter whose appearances in such eastern European cities as Bratislava, Budapest and Zagreb were an ominous portent of the violence to come. Wherever Veesenmayer went during the war, murder and mayhem followed. And yet, you would be hard pressed `to find someone today who even knows his name, let alone the activities he was involved in. Ask anyone who has a fair bit of knowledge about the Holocaust and it is almost certain that they are aware of Adolf Eichmann, the man who organized the roundup and deportation to concentration camps of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Hungary. Eichmann’s escape after the war to Argentina, eventual capture by the Israelis and subsequent trial have been covered in many books and films.

A loyal soldier – Edmund Veesenmayer gives the Nazi salute

The same cannot be said of another man who played a crucial role in the Hungarian Holocaust which took place in 1944. The name of Veesenmayer is obscure to all but a few historians who have studied the Holocaust in both the Balkans and Hungary in depth. Veesenmayer’s name is not synonymous with evil the way that Eichmann’s has become. It never will be. Veesenmayer is the man who did not quite get away, but he eventually did get off. His actions resulted in the deaths of over half a million Jews, but by 1951 Veesenmayer was a free man in West Germany. How this happened is both mysterious and matter of fact. It is a tale worth retelling since Veesenmayer’s fate was the rule rather than the exception for so many Nazi officials.

Occupation Authority – Malevolence & The Moment
Edmund Veesenmayer was born in Bavaria just after the turn of the 20th century. An excellent student, he would go on to receive a doctorate in economics at the University of Munich. After a few years of teaching at the university level, Veesenmayer joined the Nazi Party a year before Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Veesenmayer attached himself to Wilhelm Keppler, an economic adviser to Hitler. When Keppler was appointed Hitler’s special representative for Austria, Veesenmayer accompanied him to Vienna. When Kepler was called back to Berlin to develop a four year plan for the Third Reich, Veesenmayer dutifully followed. This proximity to the power paid dividends for Veesenmayer, as he was appointed to roles representing Germany in helping setup an independent Slovak state and preparing the groundwork for Nazi policies prior to the invasion of Poland and Yugoslavia. In each of these cases, Veesenmayer was a point man for the regime. He was an efficient and effective bureaucrat. Just the sort of man who would conscientiously carry out Nazi polities. His loyalty to the regime was beyond reproach.

Facing up to the facts – Edmund Veesenmayer at Nuremberg

The trust that high ranking Nazi officials placed in Veesenmayer can be inferred from the important assignment he was given in 1944. The war effort in Hungary was of immeasurable interest to the Nazis as the German Army was pushed out of the Soviet Union and retreated into the heartland of Eastern Europe. Veesenmayer was sent to Budapest with a mandate to study the Hungarian’s attitude to the war. This included both the leadership and the public. Veesenmayer’s work would help inform the German occupation of the country. Soon thereafter a German invasion was carried out in nearly flawless fashion. While Veesenmayer was an economist by training and trade, he was also an excellent organizer. His talents would now be put to the most malevolent uses. Appointed the Third Reich’s plenipotentiary (an official with the full power to operate independently) in Hungary, Veesenmayer would work in concert with Nazi officials and Hungarian fascists to prosecute the Holocaust. The stage was set for horrors, the likes of which the world has rarely seen.

Click here for: A Life & Death’s Work – Edmund Veesenmayer: Adding Up The Numbers (Part 2)

The Little Princess & The Fat Policeman – Budapest: A Little Bit Less Than Serious

Budapest can rightfully be called a city of statues. No matter where one goes there seems to be a statue or sculpture occupying a prominent place on a street corner, sidewalk or public square. Green spaces in the Belvaros (inner city) are as much a breeding ground for statuary as they are for green grass. Show a Hungarian official an open space in a public area of the city and they are quite likely to say, “This is a good place for a statue.” Show them an area of national importance, such as the grounds of parliament, then they are likely to say, “this is a good place for several statues as well as sculptures.” Past heroes are not hard to find in Budapest.

Lightness & Levity - The Little Princess in Budapest

Lightness & Levity – The Little Princess in Budapest (Credit: misibacsi)

An Ideological About Face – Lightening Up
Events as well as people are commemorated, including rather obscure ones that did not turn out the way Hungarians might have hoped. The one that immediately comes to mind is the lion sculpture in Buda on the south side of Margaret Bridge. It commemorates the Siege of Przemysl during World War One in which Hungarian forces played a prominent and ultimately futile role. The overwhelming majority of the statues are quite serious in subject matter, style and tone. They usually commemorate politicians, military figures and cultural icons who left their mark on Hungarian history. Two statues stand out in my mind for bucking this trend. They are uniquely light hearted, adding a bit of levity to the pervasive intensity of Hungary’s most famous figures immortalized in stone. Neither of these statues commemorates a specific person which makes them that much more memorable.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Hungary was a nation in serious need of some light heartedness. While many Hungarians were elated with their newfound freedom, the economic legacy of communism meant the country was in for a tumultuous ride on the road to capitalism. Part of the transition from communism to democracy was cultural, which meant statues of apparatchik icons were out. In many cases these were to be replaced by statues which had been hidden away for decades and re-imposed in public spaces. An ideological switcheroo was soon underway. The end of communism in Hungary also meant that statues exuding a less serious side could now be more prominently seen in public, one of the first of those to appear would become rightfully famous.

Catching A Ride - The Little Princess & Tram 2 in Budapest

Catching A Ride – The Little Princess & Tram 2 in Budapest (Credit: Mister No)

Model Arrangement – A Fairy Tale Come True
In 1972 the sculptor Laszlo Marton had an idea for a statue that would be unlike anything seen in Budapest at that time. There would be no grim looking bureaucrats or militaristic theme, no idealized workers marching toward a nonexistent utopian paradise. Instead Marton would portray childlike frivolity and playfulness with “The Little Princess” (Kiskirálylány in Hungarian). The model for this statue was Marton’s five-year old daughter Evike, who often dressed as a princess while on the playground in Buda. Her outfit was homemade, including a crown made of newsprint.  This inspired Marton to use Evike as a model in the family’s back garden for “The Little Princess”. The statue portrays a child wearing a robe and pointy crown. In 1990, the statue was placed atop an iron railing. The Little Princess sits on the rail relaxing, looking like the very definition of cool just a stone’s throw from the Danube. The tracks for tram line #2 run just past the statue. Across the Danube, Buda Castle rises above the city.

The Little Princess has her back turned on this dramatic scene with not a care in the world. The statue’s novelty is also part of its power. Rather than gravitas, the Little Princess portrays levity. This is the last thing a visitor would expect to see in one the most stunning settings the city has to offer. It seems entirely fitting. The Little Princess acts as a counterpoint to the usual expressions of seriousness portrayed by so many other statues in Budapest. The princess’s look of serene happiness coupled with a willful nonchalance to her surroundings makes the statue positively delightful. Perhaps She seems to be communicating a message to passersby, enjoy the moment as well as the city. The Little Princess quixotic presence has made her more than a statue, she has also become a symbol of Budapest, a city that can sometimes seem like a fairy tale.

An Old Friend - The Fat Policeman in Budapest

An Old Friend – The Fat Policeman in Budapest

The Golden Belly – For Luck & Levity
The Little Princess is not the only statue that showcases the lighter side of Budapest. Within sight of the neo-classical splendor of St. Stephen’s Basilica, stands a statue known as The Fat Policeman. He jovially guards the intersection of Oktober 6 and Zrinyi Miklos utcas (streets) with his plump, protruding belly polished to a golden bronze. His golden belly is the product of tourists hoping to glean a bit of good luck by giving The Fat Policeman a lucky tummy rub. The policeman is all but impossible to miss for those strolling up and down the street. Throngs of tourists often crowd around the statue to get their photos taken with everyone’s favorite Budapestian policeman. The Fat Policeman is warm and friendly, with his upturned mustache and peaked cap he looks the opposite of a stereotypical cop.  The sculptor of the statue, Andras Illyes, is said to have modeled it after his grandfather who must have had a very pleasant demeanor by the looks of his look-a-like. The statue was installed in 2008. Since that time, it has become a must see, as well as a must rub.

The Little Princess and The Fat Policeman are memorable precisely because they are so unlike most statues in Budapest. In a city where it seems like almost any statue is fraught with meaning, both political and personal, it is nice to see a few that reflect a more pleasant side to the city’s persona. While the statues do not pay homage to any specific historical figures, nor do they express an ideological point of view, their most revolutionary aspect is happiness. Maybe that is why they are viewed with such fondness. They remind visitors that for all its grandeur and glitz, Budapest is also the kind of place where a princess and policeman prove that above all else, levity reigns supreme.