Chronic Absenteeism –Eastern Europeans Abroad: In Search Of Opportunity

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

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

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

Rule Britannia - Eastern European living in Great Britain

Rule Britannia – Eastern European living in Great Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distant Ancestors - Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

Distant Ancestors – Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

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

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

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

The Vizsla - Hungarian Born & Bred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready For Action - A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose

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

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

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

Pick of the Litter - Blue Creek Kennel

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

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

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

Tisza the Vizsla - A Hungarian Icon

Tisza the Vizsla – A Hungarian Icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randolph Braham - The Scholar of Hungarian Jews' Sorrow

Randolph Braham – The Scholar of Hungarian Jews’ Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before The Holocaust - Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Before The Holocaust – Postcard of Dej Synagogue

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

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

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

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

A Way of Life - Dej Synagogue

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

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

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

Virtual Slavery - Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Virtual Slavery – Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Twisted Fairy Tale – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: An Albanian Love Affair (Part One)

Imagine there was once a king from a small, exotic European nation that went by a strange name. The only thing stranger than the nation’s name was that of the king’s. This king had risen from tribal leader to politician and then to the most powerful person in a newly born nation. He was crafty, intelligent and utterly corrupt. His country was desperately poor. It lacked the infrastructure and institutions in which of a modern state. It was beset by feuding, capricious violence and poverty. By the mid-1930’s, the King was in his early forties, a bachelor who was looking to marry. He wanted a woman with an aristocratic background and lots of money. There were plenty of aristocratic women to choose from in interwar Europe. The aristocracy had taken quite a fall since the end of World War I. The King also needed a woman with money because of his spendthrift ways and addictive habits. He sent his sisters to Vienna and Budapest in search of a suitable match for him.

They would send him a photo of a beautiful lady taken at a dinner in Budapest. One of his sisters then invited this woman to visit the exotic nation. The woman who would be queen was elegant, attractive and came from an aristocratic background, but she was far from wealthy. Her family’s fortune had all but vanished. A meeting was arranged between the two. It was not exactly love at first sight. The King was twenty years older than the Queen and looked every bit of it. Despite each ones less than desirable characteristics, they wed not long after that first meeting and would stay together for the rest of the king’s tempestuous life. The modern fairy tale told in the preceding paragraph is the story of the first King and Queen of Albania. If the story sounds unbelievable, than it just go to proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.  The woman who became queen could certainly vouch for that.

Budapest Beauty - Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day

Budapest Beauty – Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day

From Countess To Queen – The Riches Of Royalty
Countess Geraldine Margit Virginia Olga Maria Apponyi de Nagy-Appony or as she was later known, Queen Geraldine of Albania, was born in Budapest during the First World War. She was the daughter of a well-connected Hungarian aristocrat, while her American mother was an heiress whose father was a leading diplomat. Countess Geraldine spent her childhood in such glamorous locales as Switzerland, the south of France, the Wienerwald in Austria and a family chateau in Czechoslovakia. It all sounds glamorous and by all accounts her childhood was a happy one, but her life was less than the stuff dreams are made of. Her father had died when she was only nine years old. After her mother remarried, Geraldine and her sisters were packed off to a boarding school in Austria. By the time she entered adulthood, her family fortune was exhausted. The Countess took up employment as a short hand typist. Her uncle, who was director of the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, helped her procure a second job as a clerk in the museum’s gift shop selling postcards.

Geraldine ended up abandoning her two jobs to marry a man who had survived innumerable assassination attempts, pulled all-nighters at the poker table and smoked 150 cigarettes a day. Not exactly a great catch for a woman, but at least he was a king. She was also feted with outrageous sums of money. The vice-president gave her a velvet pocketbook with the equivalent of half a million dollars in it. She donated it to an Albanian charity. The couples’ wedding was a memorable occasion. The most important dignitary in attendance was the personal envoy of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was said to be furious with Zog’s choice of Geraldine as his bride. He would have preferred that Zog marry an Italian, as Mussolini planned to incorporate Albania into his vision of a greater Italy. Another vile dictator also left his mark on the wedding. The couple drove to their honeymoon in a red Mercedes gifted to them by Adolf Hitler. It must have been quite the ride because Albania’s roads were in deplorable condition.

A Match Made In Albania - Wedding of King Zog and Geraldine Apponyi

A Match Made In Albania – Wedding of King Zog and Geraldine Apponyi

Stateless – A King & Queen Without A Country
During the 354 days of her reign spent in Albania, Queen Geraldine was given the royal treatment by King Zog. He expended a fortune to ensure that she was provided with every luxury. Much of the money Zog was wasting had been given to Albania by Italy. This was done to curry favor with the king. Mussolini hoped to use this small, primitive nation on the eastern side of the Adriatic as a stepping stone to eventually occupy Greece. Unfortunately for the Italians, Zog displayed ingratitude on a scale rarely seen before or since. He wanted their money for one reason only, to spend it as he saw fit. Italian advisers were crawling all over the Albanian government, trying to bring a sense of order and professionalism to it. Some of the funds went for infrastructure upgrades, but much of it was wasted on the King’s whims or for jewels, furs and other material items for the Queen. The Italians grew increasingly fed up with Zog’s behavior.

Heirs to the throne - Queen Geraldine & Crown Prince Leka

Heirs to the throne – Queen Geraldine & Crown Prince Leka

Just a week and a half after Geraldine had given birth to an heir, Crown Prince Leka, the royal couple fled the country. An Italian invasion made Albania a vassal state of Mussolini’s Italy. Some observers questioned why Zog had been hell bent on alienating the Italians. If his behavior had been a bit better he could likely have continued ruling the country under Italian occupation, but not as his personal fief. The king was too corrupt and cunning for the Italians to tell him what to do. Zog probably believed that the Italians would have had him murdered if he stayed in Albania. He was extremely paranoid and for good reason, Zog survived 55 assassination attempts in his life – a world record for a modern leader. There was no compelling reason for Zog to test his luck once again. Plus, Zog believed he had secreted away enough money in accounts outside of the country to allow the royal couple to live a wealthy existence for years to come. Thus, King Zog and Queen Geraldine went into exile. The King was to never see his homeland again.

Click here:  A Lifetime Of Wandering – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: Unrestored Royalty (Part Two)

The Price Of Loyalty – Sopron’s Return To History: Bordering On Prosperity

Sopron is known as the “most loyal” city in Hungary for good reason, almost two-thirds of the citizenry voted in a 1921 plebiscite to remain part of Hungary. It was the only area of “Historic Hungary” that reversed a territorial adjustment from the hated Treaty of Trianon which was imposed upon a defeated Hungary in the aftermath of the First World War. Hungarians have returned that devotion by lavishing Sopron with affection. In my experience, the city is second only to Budapest in mentions of the most beloved city in Hungary. Sopron has other attributes that add to its attractiveness. These include hundreds of historic structures and monuments, with a depth of history going all the way back to antiquity. There is also Sopron’s prosperity, which by Hungarian standards makes the city quite wealthy. It is wealth and loyalty that made Sopron what it is today, but those traits also lie deep in its past.

Worth more than a visit - History and beauty in Sopron

Worth more than a visit – History and beauty in Sopron

Roads To Wealth – Shopping In Scarbantia & Sopron
Over a thousand years before there was a Sopron, another city existed in the same location. That city was part of the ancient Roman empire and went by the name of Scarbantia. Just as modern-day Sopron is built upon commerce, so too was ancient Scarbantia. The latter could not rely on a nearby neighbor such as Austria to stimulate trade, instead the genesis of Scarbantia’s trade arose from more far flung regions. The city was located at an important junction where two roads, one each from the settlements of Vindobona (Vienna) and Carnuntum (to the north along the Danube River), came together on the Via Emilia, a Roman road that led onward to the Adriatic. This route, as well as Scarbantia, lay along the older Amber Road, that stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. The Romans were imposing their imperial designs on a trade route which predated their arrival. Scarbantia’s wealth grew due to the volume of trade which passed along the roads and this route, much of which the city benefited from.

Present day Sopron is also focused on trade. Commerce comes to it via several different roads, most principally the ones from Austria. Since both countries are members of the European Union, traffic can flow across the border unimpeded. Hundreds of cars drive across the Klingenbach and Deutschkreutz border crossings each day, moving from west to east, in search of deep discounts in consumer products and highly affordable health care. It has been said that location is everything when it comes to business, that is certainly true of the economic prosperity of Sopron past and present. Modern Sopron enjoys a fabulous location for commerce, as it is tucked up close to the Austrian border. For Austrians, Sopron is just minutes or at most a few hours away. A cross border trip is worth the savings they will incur by going to shop in Sopron. Prices are anywhere from 20% to 50% lower. On weekends, Austrians come to enjoy the beauty and ambiance of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner city), but also more importantly to shop. Sopronites may have voted to stay in Hungary, but they are more than happy to welcome Austrians.

Ruins of Scarbantia in Sopron

Ruins of Scarbantia in Sopron

Fierce Attachment – A Habsburgian Hungarian City
Just as Sopron’s economic basis as a trade hub aligns with both its past and present, so too does its loyalty to the homeland. The plebiscite vote in 1922 was not the first time in the city’s history when Sopron’s citizenry voiced their fervent support to stay part of Hungary. Almost 650 years earlier the same decision faced the Magyars who made up the bulk of Sopron’s population. It was in 1273 that military forces led by the Bohemian King, Ottokar II captured Sopron’s castle. He then took sons and daughters of the nobility as hostage in the hopes of forcing the population into supporting him and submitting to his rule. This strategy backfired. When the Hungarian King Ladislaus IV brought his troops to the city walls. The citizens threw open the gates to them. Sopron was recovered and for its faithfulness was rewarded with the designation of Free Royal Town (Szabad királyi város). This limited the Hungarian nobility’s privileges, while allowing the city to exercise self-government which manifested itself in greater freedom to develop and control its economy.

Sopron’s fierce attachment to Hungary is reflected in the events of both 1273 and 1922, but these were by no means the only times that the city showed its loyalty to Hungary. A fine example of this took place in 1529, when the city was looted by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were unable to occupy the city long term. After they left, the city was refortified and became one of the most important cities in Royal Hungary, as great multitudes of Magyars fled to it. It soon retook its place as a thriving economic hub. The Ottomans were never able to occupy it again, despite the century and a half of on again, off again warfare that plagued Hungary. Yet the famed loyalty of Sopron does come with some paradoxes. In both of Hungary’s Wars of Independence against Habsburg rule – Rakoczi’s from 1703 – 1711 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49 – Sopron was firmly secured under the Habsburg yoke. This is understandable, since Sopron’s nearness to the seat of Habsburg power in Vienna meant that Austrian power could be easily imposed. Plus, Sopron had benefited more than most Hungarian cities from Habsburg rule, due to the same type of trade and economic connections which it still enjoys today.

Return to history - Hungarian border guard cuts barbed wire at the border with Austria in 1989

Return to history – Hungarian border guard cuts barbed wire at the border with Austria in 1989

Beyond Borders – The Economic Ties That Bind
Loyalty can also come with a cost. Sopron discovered just how high the price could be during the Cold War. For four decades it stood on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, this hindered the city’s economic development. In a classic case of faraway, so close Austria and the wealth of Mitteleuropa was just out of reach. Barbed wire, border controls and gun barrels stood in the way of progress and prosperity. Nothing could have been nearer or farther than the Austrian border. Sopronites waited, faithfully and fitfully for the border to reopen and the city to be reconnected with its economic hinterland. That moment finally arrived in 1989. Since that time, the most faithful city in Hungary has resumed its historical role as one of the nation’s most prosperous.

Click here for: All That Remains  –  Sopron:  Lasting Impressions Of Brief Encounters


From Mansion To MOL Station –  Nagycenk Before Nightfall: Life A Little More Than Ordinary

Upon leaving the Szechenyi mausoleum and the cemetery behind I followed the road that I had taken from the railway station on into the center of town. The road itself was named for the great man. After making an arcing curve past rows of small houses it led to Szechenyi ter, where a sculpture of Istvan Szechenyi stood. Atop a large white plinth, there Szechenyi stood with his right hand in the air, palm turned upward and his gaze fixed skyward. It was as though he was lifting an entire nation up with his pose. On the white pediment were the words “Magayaorszag nem volt hanem lesz” which roughly translated into English means “Hungary wasn’t, it will be”. These were words Szechenyi had expressed with a future certainty.

Behind the statue was Saint Stephen Church, a rather restrained neo-Romanesque edifice that was about the only thing in Nagycenk which tried to challenge Szechenyi’s grip on local grandeur. Unfortunately, the church was closed. This was not the first time this had happened to me in Hungary, even in villages. Something I will never quite understand is why these churches are closed and locked. They should be places of spiritual shelter, rather than premises of unpermitted access to all but the anointed. This situation did not surprise me, though I found it highly irritating. I then headed off to find Szechenyi’s mansion. This entailed a good twenty-minute walk that took me just out of town into the adjacent countryside.

Szechenyi Mansion in Nagycenk

Szechenyi Mansion in Nagycenk (Credit: Harriet)

A Mansion & Memory – Everlasting Ideals
The neo-classical/late baroque façade of the Szechenyi Mansion looked like the type of home befitting a great family of pragmatic sensibilities. It managed to be stately and understated at the same time. There was no hint of the fantastical Esterhaza which I had visited in nearby Fertod a day earlier. Istvan Szechenyi was a man whose ideals were based on economy and efficiency. The mansion lacked any type of esoteric flourishes, instead it evoked stability and presence, just like the Szechenyi’s themselves. Istvan Szechenyi was a man who believed in capitalism, innovation and social progress. His greatest literary work was a volume on how to eliminate economic backwardness in Hungary and given the austere title Credit (Hitel). It would have been nice to see the interior, but I was out of luck again as the mansion had closed an hour before my arrival. I wandered around the back of the building, walking past the stud farm. At one time, Szechenyi had eighty studs on this farm. He had also pastured 25,000 sheep on the family estates. Those days were gone, but the memory of them was being kept alive by the mansion and its well-manicured grounds.

The grounds were impressive and my stroll around part of them took a considerable amount of time. Late afternoon was slowly turning to evening. I noticed the sun beginning to dip toward the western horizon. This was my signal to go find the nearest bus stop and wait on the next one for Sopron. As luck would have it, the bus had just left and there were very few running because it was a weekend. I was forced to wait for almost two hours until the next one arrived.  This was the first time I had ever found myself in a Hungarian village with more than a half-hour wait and nothing to do. There was little activity in Nagycenk, which was not all that surprising. It was early Sunday evening and spring was just arriving. The air began to grow chilly as dusk began to beckon. The sound of barking dogs and cars passing through town were the only noises that broke the silence.

Hanging out with the rest of humanity - MOL petrol station

Hanging out with the rest of humanity – MOL petrol station (Credit: globetrotter19)

Civilized Progress – An Extraordinary Convenience
After a few minutes at the bus stop, another man who looked to be in his fifties showed up and studied the bus schedule.  He asked me a question in Hungarian which I did not understand. He then pointed at the arrival time for the next bus to Sopron, shook his head and we both laughed. Actions translate more easily than words. I knew exactly what he meant, just like me he had been a few minutes too late. He soon wandered off, likely back to his residence. I did not have that option. There was nothing left for me to do other than walk to the MOL station and get something to eat. MOL (Magyar OLaj- és Gázipari Részvénytársaság) stands for the Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company. The company operates a chain of gas stations across the country. At the point where Highways 84 (to Sopron) and 85 (to Sarvar) split off in Nagycent stands a strategically placed MOL station.

I was likely one of the few tourists or travelers that walked, rather than drove, to a MOL station. This action was nothing special though it turned into an essential travel experience. Walking to a MOL station was not what I traveled halfway around the world to do, but I felt more a part of Hungary doing this than I would have on any grand tour of the country. There is travel experience and then there is living experience. For a moment I was able to step out of the former and into the latter. Going to a MOL station was a daily activity for many Hungarians, what I would call a living experience. This was what life came down to every day for many Hungarians and the same could be said for Americans. All the collective efforts of civilized progress had brought MOLs and similar stations like it.

Same As It Ever Was – Hanging Out With The Rest Of Humanity
I have often wondered what it would be like to live in Eastern Europe. My several hours in Nagycent gave me an idea. People came and went at the gas station, fueling up their cars. The attendants looked incredibly bored, just like they do in the United States. Everything was pretty much the same as at home. I found this familiarity comforting. The days of Hungary being part of a wild, exotic east or sequestered behind an Iron Curtain were a thing of the distant past. Communism came and went, what it left behind were a bunch of bad buildings and endemic corruption. Capitalism now reigned supreme. If anything, the MOL station was much nicer than the mom and pop convenience stores back home. Everything was coated in a bright sheen of stylish design. There was nothing exotic about the place, but professionalism and neatness reigned supreme over every shelf.

The genius of western civilization offered every traveler the comfort of candy bars and fizzy drinks. I had come to Nagycenk in search of Szechenyi and in the process discovered the joys of a MOL petrol station. The station lodged itself in my memory much longer than the Szechenyi Mansion or Mausoleum. The latter were extraordinary places, sought out by thousands of bored school children, fervent Hungarian nationalists and travel guide toting foreigners. The MOL station was a place where the rest of humanity hung out, fated to spend a few minutes or hours of their lives.

Click here for: The Price Of Loyalty – Sopron’s Return To History: Bordering On Prosperity

Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The last thing I did before leaving Koszeg was snap a photo of the train station, a two story building with a lime exterior and dirty red roof that was a cross between elegant and decrepit. The station looked like it was either one coat of paint away from renovation or one moment away from dilapidation. This made it especially photogenic. The picture was one that I came to treasure, as a throwback to a bygone era of travel that had somehow survived into the modern age. This was a photo that I enjoyed staring at, imagining that I was on one of the empty benches, backpack at my side, guidebook in hand, waiting for the next train to Szombathely. For me, this photo was essentially romantic, filled with the unspoken possibilities of travel, a journey beginning or ending in some far-off place. In sum, it stirred my imaginative longings for a place I longed to be. A life spent in perpetual motion, always in transit, a citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

Quite shockingly, my view of this photo was irreparably altered months later while reading Paul Lendvai’s remarkable work of history, The Hungarians: Victory In Defeat. In the middle of the book were the usual assortment of glossy historical photos of personages or events that were important to Hungarian history. One of these caught my attention. It showed a large group of people crowded together holding some of their belongings. They were huddled together, most of them with their backs to the camera waiting on some form of transport. The caption stated: “Jewish deportees from the Western Hungarian township Koszeg, summer 1944. Between 15 May and 7 July 402 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom only a minority survived.” I immediately made a connection. The Jews in this photo were likely standing at Koszeg’s train station. Sure enough, when I started searching on the internet I discovered that the photo was snapped at the station. This raised questions, was the photo taken surreptitiously or purposely? Likely the latter. Perhaps for official purposes, as proof that deportation was taking place.

Dreams & Nightmares - Koszeg Railway Station

Dreams & Nightmares – Koszeg Railway Station

Sinister Stirrings – Taking It Personally
I later discovered a larger sized version of the same photo that personalized the horror. Studying it, I was able to discern multiple details. There was a woman in white headscarf in the front left of the group. In her arms she held a large, thick black coat. Judging by her looks, she was older than average and thus would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz. All the adults standing in the group are wearing coats. Some are better dressed than others, such as the man in the far left of the image who looks to be wearing a rather nice suit. Quite a contrast from a man in the front right of the photo, who is only seen from a side angle. His slump shouldered posture expressive of defeat. He props himself up with a cane, while a hat and coat cover his beaten figure. In the background stands a vehicle piled high with suitcases and trunks filled with personal belongings. These possessions were destined to be taken from their owners in the coming days. The same could be said for so many of their lives.

The most disturbing part of the image for me was to be found in the lower right corner. Here a woman can be seen dressed in a very nice outfit, perhaps an employee of the state railways. She is talking with another person who cannot be seen. The woman looks stylish and quite casual. There is no hint on her face that anything sinister is taking place. It is just another day at work for her or at least that is what the image portrays. There could be no greater contrast than that of this woman protected by her status and ethnicity, standing within a stone’s throw of those Jews on the verge of being transported to a death camp. This all happened close to where I took my picture. There was no plaque at the station commemorating this tragedy. It was lacking out of shame or ignorance, neglect or indifference.

Traces of evil - Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Traces of evil – Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Abandoned Dreams – A Nightmare Scenario
It has since dawned on me that the most consistent physical reminder left of the Holocaust in Hungary are its railway stations. These portals of public transport were supposed to be harbingers of technological progress. They were built to facilitate commerce and the movement of people. The stations and trains certainly did that, but also ended up being used for genocidal purposes in 1944. Koszeg’s train station is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the deportation of the Jews. The same thing happened at innumerable railway stations and sidings across Hungary. Without the extensive railway system in Hungary it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to administer the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Never in the history of Europe had such a normal aspect of everyday life, whether for work or pleasure, been put to such horrific use.

The fact that Koszeg’s little railway station was the place where more than 400 Jews were shuttled off to one of the most infamous death camps in history is almost as difficult to fathom as the Holocaust itself. A place that I saw as a starting point for dreams of wider travel excursions had been the beginning of someone else’s nightmare. This ambiguity can be found in many such places where a conflicted history meets a present reality in Hungary. On the day I arrived and departed from the station it was almost vacant. There were few passengers on the platform. What I could not see, understand or comprehend were the ghosts of all those Jews who had been deported not so long ago. They were somewhere out there in the past, waiting on a train that they hoped would not arrive and wondering if it did, what that meant for their future. Whatever dreams of life in Koszeg they still had were left abandoned at the siding. Whatever illusions I had about travel from the Koszeg railway station were also abandoned. Left behind at the very moment I saw that photo in Lendvai’s book.

Click here for: Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits