The Invisible Women of Hungary – A “National” Pantheon In Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 36)

The architecture and design of Dom ter was exhilarating to the point of distraction. One that almost caused me to forget the first thing I noticed after entering the square. Inside the arcades that surrounded Dom ter were a series of 80 mounted busts. They featured a wide range of famous Hungarians in what was termed the National Pantheon. These included everything from physicians to musicians, poets and politicians. At first glance, the National Pantheon was a seemingly exhaustive one with the likes of Kodaly, Kos and Keleman, Bercsenyi, Bathhyany and Bathory, Ady, Arany and Attila (the poet not the warrior). As I walked from bust to bust, a troubling feeling began to creep over me. While these Hungarians came from an array of backgrounds and disparate occupations, they all had one thing in common, each person represented was male.

The Old Boys Club - The National Pantheon in Szeged

The Old Boys Club – The National Pantheon in Szeged (Credit: Wikipedia)

Willful Ignorance – A Celebration Of Chauvinism
Finding a female in the National Pantheon was an exercise in futility. I searched in vain for a famous Hungarian woman. If the idea of the pantheon was to bring together the greatest contributors to Hungarian history, politics and culture than a large percentage of the population had been left with no representation. Not a single female was to be found among the eighty. The National Pantheon was a closed shop. A men’s only club, that oddly enough was not totally limited to Hungarian men. In a couple of cases there were even foreign men, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef and engineer of the Chain Bridge, Scotsman Adam Clark.

There was no room in the exhibit for Franz Josef’s much more famous wife Queen Elisabeth (Empress Elisabeth of Austria or Sisi), a beloved figure for Hungarians. I have heard Elisabeth referred to as “our Queen” by more than a few Hungarians. She is rightfully exalted in Hungarian circles for her love of the people. She would have been a much better choice than her husband who imposed martial law on Hungary after the 1848 Revolution. While this was but one example, it was a particularly glaring omission. The fact that Elisabeth had been overlooked was a symptom of the overall problem, the National Pantheon was as much a celebration of chauvinism as it was of the nation’s favorite sons. Favorite daughters were nowhere to be found.

The fact that not a single woman was represented made the exhibit both alarming and irritating. It meant that half the population had been willfully ignored. From what I would later learn, the National Pantheon had been installed at the behest of Hungarian Culture Minister Kuno Klebelsburg in 1930. Klebelsburg was a virulent nationalist and anti-semite, who most have had little to no regard for the achievements of Hungarian women. Considering the time period when Klebelsburg held office, his views were not that surprising. More alarming was the fact that in the past eighty years not a single woman had been added to the Pantheon. This was an astonishing oversight, one that was either deliberate or more likely revealing. It was a not so subtle expression of the power of men and the anonymity of women in Hungary.

The Arcaded Way - Dom ter in Szeged

The Arcaded Way – Dom ter in Szeged (Credit: Berosz)

Femme Fatale – Heroines Are Hard To Find
If the National Pantheon was meant to be symbolic than the message was clear, no females need apply. I must grudgingly admit that the exhibit was effective on at least one level, it caused me to think back across my travels in the country, searching my memory for the famous females either in statuary, sculpture or naming conventions. I was struck by how few I could recall. If love is blindness than my romantic view of Hungary was blind to the reality that women were marginalized to the point of invisibility. Heroines rather than heroes were hard to find in Hungary. I had stumbled upon the original sin of omission in the country, one that left me searching for signs of famous females while asking myself exactly who should join the feted figures to round out the National Pantheon.

Right off hand, I could name only three famous Hungarian women. The folk singer Marta Sebestyen, the author Magda Szabo and the most famous Hungarian woman of all time, the infamous “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory. The latter is a litmus test for power and controversy when it comes to Hungarian women. Anytime, a reputed serial killer is a nation’s most famous woman that says something about the way powerful females are viewed in that country. What many have overlooked in the hysteria surrounding Bathory’s exploits (which were grossly exaggerated) was her role as one of the most powerful people in Hungarian history, male or female. She held fortunes in land, villages and other property that were greater than that of the Habsburg emperor.

After Lady Bathory’s husband, the vaunted military commander Ferenc Nadasdy died, Bathory was left widowed and at the less than tender mercies of the male powers that be. The Habsburg King Matthias and Hungarian Palatine Gyorgy Thurzo had a vested interest in having her scandalous behavior brought to light. That is just what happened, with Bathory spending the rest of her life imprisoned and losing all of her property in the process. Did Bathory contribute enough to Hungary that she should be included in a national pantheon? Due to her murderous crimes the answer must be no. Nonetheless, she was resolutely opposed to the Turks and supported Hungarian interests at a time that they were threatened from both within and without. Not to mention the fact that Bathory had more effect on Hungary’s direction than any number of figures represented in the National Pantheon.

Invisible Woman - Rosika Schwimmer

Invisible Woman – Rosika Schwimmer (Credit: Lackner,Vienna)

Silent Voices – A Study In The Exclusionary
No other female comes close to Bathory’s fame or infamy, but other women have certainly left a lasting mark on Hungary. Take for instance, the noted feminist, suffragette and internationalist Rosika Schiwmmer. The daughter of a Budapest produce merchant, she was a pacifist at a time when war was all the rage. Schwimmer was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Switzerland following World War I. Her efforts helped Hungarian women gain limited suffrage in 1918. The communists and fascists vehemently disagreed on just about everything, except for their universal loathing of Schwimmer, which says something remarkable about her principles. She was forced into exile, but continued to fight for various causes. In 1947 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not so much surprising as it is sad that Schwimmer is not a member of the National Pantheon.

The irony of the National Pantheon is that much of it is attached to buildings that belong to the University of Szeged, an institution whose student body is majority female. Do the women studying at the University realize their marginalization is being openly presented to the public right in front of them? What are their thoughts about the impact that famous Hungarian women have had on the nation’s history, politics and culture? What females would they recommend for inclusion in the Pantheon? These questions have never been answered, let alone asked. The voices that need to speak the loudest continue to remain silent.

More Than Anyone Can Imagine – The Seduction of Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 32)

One of the most appealing aspects of travel in Hungary is the ability to make day trips to the far corners of the country from Budapest. Almost any point is accessible by rail in less than three hours. This includes all the major cities. Fancy taking a day trip to climb Sopron’s Firewatch Tower, it is a straight shot by rail only two hours and twenty-two minutes away. Want to see a magnificent example of a fin de siècle train station, hop on a train from Budapest to Miskolc and in one minute less than the time it takes to travel to Sopron you can arrive at Ferenc Pfaff’s confectionary creation. Or what about viewing the famed Reformed Church in Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome”? All it takes is an affordable train ticket to glide across the Great Hungarian Plain for two hours and thirty-five minutes on the railway to Debrecen. I found every one of these options appealing, to the point that I found myself staring at the Hungarian National Railways map in a state of barely contained rapture imagining all the dreams that could soon become a reality.

A five hour round trip train ride through the Hungarian countryside may not be for everyone, but it is my idea of travel at its finest. Passenger trains are nothing more than a novelty in the United States, but in Hungary they are the preferred mode of public transit. As such they link up every point of the compass, shuttling Hungarians across the countryside hundreds of time each day. Train travel is a way of life for many as they shuttle from city to city, village to city and village to village. For the masses in Hungary this is a necessity, whereas for me it was an opportunity to go anywhere I chose. That is how I ended up riding the rails to Szeged on a Saturday morning in late September.

On The Border - Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

On The Border – Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

Paved With Grass – The Path To Conquest
Traveling by train to Szeged offered me the opportunity to see the landscape of southeastern Hungary, which I soon learned was a yawning extension of the Great Hungarian Plain. If not for Szeged, there would be very little reason for foreign tourists to set foot in this region of sublime expanses, limitless horizons and pastoral landscapes. This is a land with no natural borders, a fact which proved of great detriment to its history. Marauding armies found little to stop them other than Hungarian forces which were dutifully cut to pieces. Once they were dispatched, these grasslands were thoroughly overrun, occupied and starved of Hungarian development for a century and a half while under the cruel administrative thumb of the Ottoman Turks.

One of the great revelations regarding the region occurred when I came across a map of Hungarian castles. Southeastern Hungary, with only one exception – Gyula Castle – showed nothing of note when it came to castles. Those that once rose from the Great Plain have long since been reduced to ruin. Their dusty residue blew away centuries ago. Rather than defend a defenseless land it was better for Hungarians to head north and west for the hills. Hundreds of settlements and tens of thousands of people disappeared from southeastern Hungary. The population density has never really recovered. This makes the city of Szeged an outlier in the region, a city of the plain that improbably sprung from the flatlands. It is an urban outpost on an otherwise unknown frontier that offers more than anyone can imagine.

Always On Time - The Szeged Train Station

Always On Time – The Szeged Train Station

Sealing The Borders – A Treaty of Transformation
A few of the things I learned about Szeged before arriving in the city were not that surprising until I considered its location. Hungarian to its core, home of the famous Pick Salami and one of the nation’s leading universities, the city’s population is 93.5% ethnic Hungarian. Nonetheless, it is located close to foreign soil. The point at which the borders of Hungary, Romania and Serbia meet is just 20 kilometers from Szeged. In terms of Hungary, Szeged is the most isolated of its largest cities. Taking a more expansive view of the area’s geography by incorporating the old Kingdom of Hungary’s borders, Szeged happens to be not nearly as isolated. The city of Subotica, which is now located in the northern extremity of Serbia, was only 50 kilometers away. The cities of Arad and Timisoara now in Romania were only a little over a hundred kilometers to the east. Like everything else in post-World War I Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon caused massive upheaval. Today a train to any of those nearby cities from Szeged can take up to six hours since none of them go there directly.

In the time it would take a passenger to ride one way to Timisoara, they could ride from Budapest to Szeged and back with time to spare. It was a good thing I was going to Szeged on this day, because trying to cross the Romanian or Serbian borders by train from Szeged is a tedious task. Szeged’s political, economic and cultural life was unmade and then transformed by Trianon. The world class university that Szeged is so proud of today, moved from Transylvania after that region became part of Romania. It also became the regional powerhouse now that all its nearby competitors were in other nations. Its geographic situation just inside the new national borders also brought about an influx of ethnic Hungarians from lands that had been lost due to Trianon. Thus, it became what it is today, the powerhouse of southeastern Hungary.

Upon Arrival - Szeged is a banner city

Upon Arrival – Szeged is a banner city

Extreme Makeover – From Flood To Flourishing
Szeged’s post-World War I makeover pales in comparison to its radical transformation due to the calamitous flooding of the Tisza River in 1879. The cityscape of Szeged that stands today, is part and parcel of a massive rebuild that occurred after the flood waters receded. The reason I had chosen Szeged for a day trip was almost entirely due to the flood of 1879. The city’s rebuilding provided a staging ground for Austro-Hungarian architectural styles. This construction took place in a period without precedent in Hungarian history. Economic growth flourished throughout the land and most prominently came to an apogee on the reconstructed streets and structures of Szeged. As the train pulled into the city’s main station, I could barely contain my excitement to see the many wonders that awaited me.


A Future That Never Arrives – The Road From Esztergom (For The Love of Hungary Part 31)

I arrived at the Esztergom train station to take a bus that would only get me halfway back to Budapest. This was a fitting finale to a daytrip that did not work out as planned. Esztergom had been strangely disappointing for me. It had not lived up to my grandiose imaginings of a sparkling riverside city that would serve as the setting for arguably the most important spiritual structure in all of Hungary. Everywhere I visited in the city turned out to be less than I could have ever imagined. The Basilica was too big and empty, the Castle Museum lacked anything of more than mild interest and the Maria Valeria Bridge was a replica rather than an original. The sky was gray, the river brown and the town all but dead.

It was one of those anonymous weekdays that make up much of life and so little of memory. My trip’s less than ideal beginning, with a public transport transfer and detour, turned out to be indicative of all that was to come. I spent almost the entire visit disconcerted, discombobulated and disenchanted. My opinion of the town owed much to my mindset. I went there thinking that Esztergom was so filled with greatness, that greatness would visit with me. Rather than discovering magic, I suffered the ordinary. Little did I know that my most lasting memory of Esztergom would be made just before boarding the bus taking me out of town. And it would not be a good one.

The Forever Wait - Esztergom Train Station

The Forever Wait – Esztergom Train Station (Credit: Sandor Antal)

The Life Of A Stranger – A Little Closer To Reality
His name was Robert and he was dressed quite nicely for a man about to take a short bus ride. He wore a dark dress jacket, a nice pair of slacks and button up shirt that in America would be viewed as appropriate attire for a dinner date.  He was standing close to me as we waited to board. I noticed him because he made eye contact. This was not unusual in Hungary, but to make continued eye contact was. We nodded in acknowledgment to one another as we stood among a small crowd. He came a bit closer and introduced himself. I was surprised when he began speaking to me in English. We made a bit of small talk about the inconvenience of having to take a bus rather than a train. His English was much better than that of many Hungarians.

I should not have been surprised since he could not have been much older than thirty, part of a newer, more outward looking generation. Usually I am guarded at public transport stations, but in this case the day had been such a letdown that I was willing to converse with almost anyone. It was not long before Robert was sharing his story. He tried to emigrate to Canada while searching for work. He had some family connections, but neither the education nor job skills necessary to be allowed anything more than a short-term stay. Since he was Roma, the asylum angle was worth a try. He had claimed discrimination on account of his ethnicity, stating that he could not find work in Hungary. According to him, Hungarians were not going to employ someone of Roma descent. It was nearly impossible to find a decent paying job. A career position was out of the question.

The Outsider’s Perspective – A Slight Hint Of Resignation
I was taken aback by his nonchalance when he stated this while standing among a crowd of Hungarians. I am certain that none of them understood, let alone cared, what he had to say. Nonetheless, it was more than a little bizarre to hear him say all this while keeping his emotions in check. He stated it with such calm, dispassionate reason that I was a bit shocked. There was no anger in his tone. If anything, there was only a slight hint of resignation. My only real issue with Robert was that he stood too close for comfort when talking to me. This would not have been a problem except for the putrid smell of his breath. It caused me on more than one occasion to step out of the direct line of his conversation. I was relieved when just before boarding the bus our conversation ended.

Onboard we sat several rows away from each other. Midway between Esztergom and Vac, the bus stopped. Robert got out of his seat and prepared to get off. He suddenly paused, turned around and looked me straight in the eye for a couple of seconds. He then got off the bus and disappeared forever. I still wonder to this day what has happened to him. I have a strange feeling that he is still getting off and on that same bus, standing outside trains stations or bus stops always waiting for a future that never arrives. That is what I imagine, because it is what I fear most. Not just for him, but also for me. Constantly traveling and still going nowhere, much like my trip to Esztergom.

Nowhere In Particular - Bus picking up passengers in Esztergom

Nowhere In Particular – Bus picking up passengers in Esztergom

The Drizzle & The Deluge – Into The Future
Once on the train back to Budapest, the grey skies which had threatened a downpour all day finally let loose. In a matter of minutes, a drizzle turned into a deluge. I stared out of water streaked windows, barely able to make anything out beyond the rivulets which coursed in trails of watery tears down the glass. Ironically my mood began to brighten. The weather may have been miserable, but I was surrounded by teenagers, at times rambunctious, at other times gossipy.

They were taking the train home from school. I had never seen a single school bus in Hungary. This was a much more accommodating substitute. I looked at all those kids oblivious to the world around them and I suddenly wished their experience had been mine. They were on their way to the outskirts of a great European capital city. These lively Magyars in miniature were enjoying an experience they could only know as normal. To be young and Hungarian, with the future in front of them. It was the opposite of Robert’s experience, one that these kids would never know. Sometimes the future is not what you make of it, but what it makes of you.

Power Without Glory – Esztergom Basilica: A Matter of Perspective (For The Love of Hungary Part 29)

I climbed all the way to the top of Castle Hill in Esztergom only to suffer a massive let down. My expectation that the Esztergom Basilica would live up to the incredible history that had occurred on Castle Hill was to end in disappointment. Scarcely had so much effort been put into a structure that turned out to be so unimpressive. The Basilica left everything to the imagination. Perhaps it was the gray weather or my weary mindset that made me loath the Basilica, but for me it was a stylistic dud of gargantuan proportions. The first thought that crossed my mind while facing it was of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. The eight gigantic Corinthian Columns which commanded the portico were similar. It looked administrative and “official” to the point of sterility. I asked myself how a nation as cultured and creative as Hungary could have fallen for such oversized neo-classicism permeating one of its most important structures. The Basilica was the antithesis of such styles as eclecticism and vernacular architecture. The structure looked like something that belonged anywhere but on this hill. Its iron dome loomed large, always hovering in the background. This was its most noticeable characteristic, more a point of novelty than fascination.

Monumentally Massive - Esztergom Basilica

Monumentally Massive – Esztergom Basilica (Credit:

Monumental Monstrosity – Lost In Space
The one thing that the Basilica had going for it was girth. Its list of superlatives was impressive or depressive depending upon one’s point of view. It was the largest church in Hungary which was hardly surprising. I did find it shocking to learn that the Basilica was also the nation’s tallest building. The organ inside was also Hungary’s largest and once a major reconstruction is complete, will be the third largest in Europe. I supposed that all this size was a disguise for the lack of aesthetics. The Basilica felt more like an imposition than anything else. Here before me stood power without glory, a temple of rigidity. Even those architectural elements which could have been sized up on a more human scale were bafflingly large. A pair of bronze doors at the entrance towered above me. They were heavy and uninviting. I felt like a miniature figure entering a house built for giants.

The Basilica’s interior was not much better. Looking up at the dome was vertigo inducing, a dizzying experience that left me reeling. This only added to the lack of charm. There was space everywhere I looked. A feeling of hollowness and vacancy pervaded the interior. A massive altarpiece with the largest single canvas painting in the world tried to compensate. It was designed to inspire awe, but the overall effect was one where scale got in the way of substance.  The building might be interpreted as the architectural manifestation of Hungarian Catholicism, distant, remote and lacking in humanity. Anything personal was lost in space, buried beneath tons of marble and covered by an iron dome. I felt like it was built to intimidate and evoke power, but ironically it left me with a feeling of indifference. The spacious interior swallowed everything and everyone.

The Bronze Doors - There Might Be Giants

The Bronze Doors – There Might Be Giants

The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be – Regression To The Mediocre
I was not surprised to learn that the building took almost fifty years to complete. To put that time period into the proper historical perspective, consider that construction began in 1822 when Hungary was completely under the thumb of the Habsburgs, continued with starts and stops despite a failed revolution. Work was finally completed two years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed. It took the combined efforts of three architects, though strangely enough they did manage to synchronize their designs. Unfortunately, the outcome was unappealing. The lone exception was a single chapel that gave an approximation of what might have been.

Prior to the Esztergom Basilica’s construction, St. Adalbert’s Cathedral had stood on the site in one form or another since the late Middle Ages. It was ravaged by fire and the Ottoman Turks, but part of it remained until the 18th century. Before demolition, the spectacular red and white marble 16th century Bakocz Chapel was taken apart and salvaged. Sixteen hundred pieces of it were numbered and saved so it could be later reconstructed within the Basilica. It remains the premier work of Renaissance art in Hungary. No finer example of master craftsmanship from that time period exists anywhere else in the country. It is a reminder that art and architecture, even in the most exalted places, has sometimes regressed rather than progressed over the centuries since the Renaissance. The Basilica as it stands today cannot compete with the Bakocz Chapel. In a clever ruse, the chapel was incorporated within the Basilica. Without it, the Basilica would be known for little more then its massiveness. The Bakocz Chapel alone is worth the visit.

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Shadowy Moods – A Lack Of Compromise
Before long I found my way down to the crypt. Its quiet, sequestered chambers haunted by the contrasting moods cast by shadows and light. I had come here, like so many others, to see the burial place of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the famously uncompromising primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church who had opposed everything from social democracy to fascism and communism. Mindszenty spent many years in prison and an even longer period living as an internal exile at the American Embassy in Budapest. A man of iron clad principles who suffered more than others because he was the kind of true believer whose actions matched his words. This made him feared by enemies and sometimes loathed by allies. He was a great, but flawed man. Steadfast in his beliefs, Mindszenty’s release was negotiated by the Vatican. He died in Austria, embittered by the Catholic Church’s political machinations which had led to his removal from the embassy and Hungary. Mindszenty was not exactly likable, but that was never his concern. He was more than a man, Mindszenty was a way of life.

Mindszenty finally came home in 1991 when he was reburied in the Basilica’s crypt. The morning I saw the tomb it was covered in ribbons representing colors of the Hungarian flag. All around was silence, a place of quiet contemplation. Hungary’s most famous and feared primate was now finally able to rest in peace. A life that had been marked by seemingly endless tumult was now part of history. The fury and fight, the principles and priesthood were all gone. The only thing left was a final resting place beneath the great weight of Esztergom’s Basilica.

Mysticism, Mirages & Melancholy – Hortobagy National Park: An Impossible Frontier (For The Love of Hungary Part 21)

When I think of World Heritage Sites in Hungary, I think of history, culture and architecture. Foremost among these are two places that could not be more different. Budapest, along the banks of the Danube and the quintessentially Hungarian village of Holloko, tucked into an obscure valley deep in the Cserhat Mountains. The riverfront in Budapest evokes the most splendid European cityscape imaginable while Holloko conjures up thoughts of age old traditions and images of spectacular quaintness. Budapest and Holloko are respectively the best of urban and rural Hungary. They also happen to be World Heritage Sites because of their outstanding intrinsic value. These are the places that come to mind for most of those who have spent time in Hungary’s capital as well as its hinterlands.

As for spaces, geological, biological and ecological, it is much more difficult to find world class landscapes in the country. Hungary’s most well-known natural wonder, the inland sea of Lake Balaton, does not enjoy World Heritage Site status, but there are several natural areas that do. The most surprising of these I discovered in an area one would not normally associated with natural wonders. It was to be found on the Great Hungarian Plain in the eastern part of the country. Covered by an ocean of short grass, marked by sublime flatness, dotted with shimmering wetlands and set beneath an incomprehensibly huge sky, lies the Hortobagy. It is Hungary’s first national park, as well as an International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Ironically this vast and expansive landscape was historically viewed by travelers as a formidable wasteland. Today, it is sought out as a destination by tens of thousands of tourists.

A Wilderness Sublime - Sheep grazing on the Hortobagy

A Wilderness Sublime – Sheep grazing on the Hortobagy

Magical Bleakness – A Land Without Limits

A land of mysticism, mirages and melancholy, where time and distance take on an entirely different meaning, the Hortobagy is a landscape that seems to have neither an end nor a beginning. If the infinite exists on earth, than I just might be able to find it out on the Hortobagy. A land without limits, it was billed as much a state of mind, as a place. The park inhabits what might be termed an in between space. Famously noted by travelers as treacherous to cross due to searing heat, icy winds or freezing cold, bandits and a decided lack of natural landmarks. It was a place for nomadic herdsmen to graze cattle and sheep across vast expanses of land underlain by alkali soils. Inhospitable, mostly uninhabitable and hardly worth cultivating other than for stock raising, the Hortobagy was difficult to avoid for those traveling across eastern Hungary and even more impossible to forget.

In Hungary, the Hortobagy and surrounding land on the Great Plain is also known as the puszta, a term that is synonymous with emptiness. Though remarkably bleak, it is an entrancing landscape. Out on the puszta, the sky is so large and land so vacant that it is difficult to discern where horizons begin or end. Strangely enough, this also leads to optical illusions which gives the Hortobagy a magical quality. The kind of landscape where myths are shaped out of torpid air and mirages have been known to materialize on humid summer days. Historical accounts tell of travelers dazzled by illusion and disillusion. Some have reported seeing cities spring from the clouds, while others have sighted fantastical palaces forming in the near distance. These are but a few examples of the imaginary formations that appear without warning.

Laid Over The Land - Hortobagy River in the National Park

Laid Over The Land – Hortobagy River in the National Park (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Mesmerizing Isolation – Outer Space On Earth

The natural history of the Hortobagy is inseparable from the Tisza River, which is now dammed and held in a large lake to the west of the national park. While the mighty Tisza is now relatively tame, it long since left a distinctive mark upon the landscape. The alkali soil, the main component of the Hortobagy’s barren landscape, was deposited over ten thousand years ago by a wilder version of the Tisza. Back then, massive herds of wild animals roamed across the area, Later, domesticated animals grazed these grasslands into submission. The same processes still take place today on a much smaller scale. To witness the timeless rituals of nature, animal and man interacting in this sublime landscape, my future wife and I traveled by train from Debrecen to the small village of Hortobagy. This was where we entered Hortobagy National Park, paying to take a wagon out onto the expansive flatlands.

My initial impression of the Hortobagy could best be summed up as “nowhere to hide.” The plain expanded exponentially in every direction. The only vegetation to be seen, other than grass, were hazy clumps of tiny trees. These were so far away as to be barely discernible. It was difficult to tell if the horizon was ten or ten thousand miles in the distance. The further we traveled, the further away the horizon stretched. Everyone and everything, whether natural or manmade, was reduced to insignificance by the sky. A few minutes after leaving the village behind, I felt as those we had entered outer space on earth. The wagon was moving, but I had the sensation that it was going nowhere. The horses pulling it were running to stand still. The openness was mesmerizing and at the same time isolating. It was world unto itself.

Heading out to the Hortabagy - Hungarian cowboy on a wagon cart

Heading out to the Hortabagy – Hungarian cowboy on a wagon cart

Heading out to the Hortabagy – Hungarian cowboy on a wagon cart

The Wilderness Sublime – A Land Of Illusion

The idea that the Hortobagy was in the same country as Budapest seemed impossible. This felt like the most remote frontier I had ever visited. Light years away from the rest of Hungary. This land made me believe, if just for a moment, that nothing else existed outside of it. It was mind boggling to think that Debrecen was only a forty-minute car ride to the west. The otherworldly quality of the landscape was largely due to it being filled by absence rather than presence. The wagon had transported us to an entirely different universe, one where time hardly existed. I began to wonder if any living entity could stand to live here for very long. The lack of life, like so many things with the Hortobagy, turned out to be an illusion. People and animals had been integral to the region since time immemorial. As I was about to discover, they still were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stock market - Horse market near Debrecen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for: Moments Of Creation – Debrecen’s Saint Andras Church: From Ruin To Reconstruction (For The Love of Hungary Part 17)

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

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

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

M3 Metro (Budapest) - The Blue Line

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

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

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

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

Less than comfortable class - Budapest Line 3 Metro Car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing times - Rally at Heroes' Square

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

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

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

Getting to know you - Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument

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

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

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

In wonder & confusion - Heroes' Square at night

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

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

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

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

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

What lies beneath - Danube River at Budapest in 1945

What lies beneath – Danube River at Budapest in 1945 (Credit:

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

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

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

In memory - Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial

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

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

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

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

Zsuzanna Ozsvath - Holocaust survivor

Zsuzanna Ozsvath – Holocaust survivor

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

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

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

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

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

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial

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

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

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

Plaque at the Shoes on the Danube Bank

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

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

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

Close up of the Shoes of The Danube Bank Memorial

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

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

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