Monumental Understanding – Jews of Vienna: Piecing Together The Past (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #50)

At the Albertina Platz in the heart of Vienna I came across the Memorial against war and fascism. One part of the monument made me really stop and think. It was a sculpture of a bearded Jewish man scrubbing cobblestones. This was what Viennese Jews were forced to do in a public spectacle after the Anschluss when Nazi Germany took over Austria. This part of the monument was extremely controversial when it was first put on public display. The Austrian sculptor, Alfred Hrdlicka, wanted Viennese going about their daily business to never forget the mistreatment of Jews. The sculpture was a powerful indictment of Nazism and the role many in Austria played in it.

While that may have been the memorial’s intention, it was inadvertently desecrated after being placed on public display in 1988 by kids climbing upon it, tourists sitting atop it and dogs urinating on it. An outcry followed from the city’s Jewish community and many local leaders. The sculpture stayed, with one telling addition, iron barbed wire was placed on the man’s back. Signage also helped interpret the monument for those unaware of its meaning. To my mind, the monument served its purpose by making me realize that among all the urban beauty and architectural wonder of Vienna, ghosts from the city’s Nazi past still lurked. This was truly a case where a monumental work left no stone unturned to ensure that the recent past would not so easily be forgotten.

The kneeling Jew – Memorial Against War & Violence in Vienna (Credit: Haeferl)

Deeper Roots – Unearthing A Tragic Past
On this same trip around Vienna, I found myself visiting one of the city’s lesser known museums. While I will not begrudge those that visit the Hofburg Palace or one of several famous art museums, the City Museum of Vienna was more to my liking. It gave a sweeping overview of the city’s history with different artifacts representing certain ages, themes, trends, and people. One artifact literally pieced together the past, recreating one of the darkest moments in a city that has had many of them. This revealed to me the much deeper and tragic roots of Jewish history in Vienna.

My understanding of antisemitism is limited to it as a tragic phenomenon of the modern age which culminated in the Holocaust. When I think of Jewish Vienna two things come to mind. The first is its rich intellectual life during the half century leading up to World War I. In 1867, Austria-Hungary granted its Jewish inhabitants equality under the law. From that point up until 1914, Jews achieved a string of successes in almost every profession. Such names as Wittgenstein and Freud, among many others, have become enshrined in the European intellectual pantheon as thinkers of outstanding genius. The second image is of the Nazi takeover of the city and oppression of its Jewish citizenry, which for many eventually led to concentration camps. I never really gave much thought to Jews in Vienna prior to the 19th century.

Piecing together the past – Floor tiles from Vienna Women’s Synagogue destroyed in 1421

Vienna Gesera – Exile & Execution
A set of floor tiles in the city museum irreparably changed my historical frame of reference regarding Jewish Vienna. The floor tiles were from the Vienna Women’s Synagogue (Frauenchuel). which ceased to exist in 1421. The year before that, Jewish life in medieval Vienna took a decided turn for the worse as a campaign of persecution began. It took place after Duke Albert demanded Jews convert to Christianity. Their refusal resulted in everything from exile to execution. In one case, 152 Jews, 120 of whom were women, got burned alive. The persecution became known as the Vienna Gesera. Its impetus was twofold. First, there were rumors that Jews were supporting the heretical Hussites, who were the mortal enemies of the Habsburgs. Secondly, jealousy of the wealth many Jews had attained may have stimulated the persecution. Then, in a medieval version of fake news, word spread that Jews had in their possession communion wafers which they had desecrated.

The upshot was a ferocious backlash. Jews in Vienna resisted the best they could, but when they learned all children under the age of 15 would be taken from them conversion to Christianity, tensions boiled over. The culmination of the persecution was a three day siege at the women’s synagogue which ended with it being destroyed along with the defenders. Chronicles from the time state that the latter committed mass suicide. The rest of the Jews were rounded up and burnt atop a funeral pyre on March 12th, outside the city. After their lives had been extinguished, looting of their possessions continued until nothing was left. Their property was turned over to avaricious citizens. In effect, this was the end of Jews in Vienna for the next couple of hundred years. They would only begin to regain their foothold in the city during the 17th century.

Persecution – Jews being forced to scrub streets in Vienna by Nazis (Credit: National Archives and Records Administration College Park)

Obstacles & Oppression – Jewish History in Vienna
The eradication of Jews in medieval Vienna was just a footnote in history compared to the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust, but it showed just how deep the historical roots of antisemitism went in the city. History would repeat itself five hundred years later with dire results for Viennese Jews. The city embraced and later rejected them. The acceptance Jews have received in the city has always turned out to be ephemeral. While they added an incredible amount to the city’s intellectual and cultural life, the Viennese were ambivalent about their presence. For long stretches of the city’s history, Veinna’s Jews have been treated with either grudging acceptance, willful indifference or sheer venality. A combination of those three had tragic consequences in 1421 and 1938.

The City Museum taught me that the past usually has precedents, but only exists if we are aware of it. The tiles on display were well worth a look because they offered tangible evidence of the Jewish presence in Vienna during the late Middle Ages. Artifacts are only as powerful as the stories they tell. In this case, the tiles told an important and overlooked, if not entirely unknown story. One that shows the obstacles and oppression that Jews have faced throughout their history in Vienna. Recognizing that history not only enriches our understanding of the past, it also serves as a warning for the future. Only time will tell if tolerance can triumph over prejudice. The history of Vienna’s lost Jewish communities does not evoke optimism.

Click here for: Travelers Clutching Their Baedekers – Transylvania & Modern Tourism: Following In The Footsteps (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #51)

Displaced Person – Zygmunt Wardzinski: Eastern Frontal Assault (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny # 46)

As I have grown older, rather than looking forward, I found myself beginning to look back. The older I got, the more I found myself succumbing to nostalgia. This manifested itself in a search to find the roots of certain passions that came to dominate my life. Eastern Europe being one of them.

My upbringing in the foothills of western North Carolina offered no hint that a future obsession would involve a region thousands of kilometers and an ocean away from home. My hometown and the surrounding county offered no real connection to the region. Settlers to the area were of Scots Irish and Italian descent. With the ever-present Cold War, ominous images of the Iron Curtain and the menace of communism, there was nothing but negativity to frame my image of Eastern Europe. The closest I came to anyone with even a loose attachment to the region was a friendship that started in the first grade and continues to this very day. My friend’s last name was Huss, a surname of Czech or Austrian ethnicity. At the time I had no idea of the Hussites or Jan Hus. To be honest, I did not know a thing about them until after I left university. Only in retrospect, did this first, tenuous connection become somewhat apparent.

Poles to arms – Polish Home Army propaganda poster

Mysterious Days – A Path to The Past & Present
There were other signposts that guided me towards Eastern Europe. The Olympics, interest on the outbreak of World War I, international events such as the Iron Curtain falling, and at one least one person who had managed to survive the horrors of World War II. One these memories is still quite vivid. The first person of Polish descent I recall meeting was a community college instructor. One evening, my girlfriend at the time and I received a dinner invitation to his house. Also present were his father and mother who were in town for a family visit. His father had been a teacher at an academy in Philadelphia before retiring. I soon learned that he had originally come to the United States from Poland after World War II. In retrospect, I realize now that he was a displaced person.

During dinner he recalled the first day of the war when Germany attacked Poland on September 1st, 1939. What he said next lodged in my memory. He spent time in both Germans and Soviet prison camps. I had never met any survivors from the Eastern Front, let alone the camps where countless numbers of people died. To survive imprisonment at the hands of history’s most vile regimes was miraculous. His demeanor was just as inspirational as his stories. He told joke after joke, often laughing heartily during dinner. The man had a love for life that stuck in my memory. After that night, I regretted that never saw him again. There were so many questions I would have loved to ask him. Where was he from in Poland? How did he manage to survive imprisonment? These were questions I would never have answered or so I thought.

Idyllic setting – Bukowiec in Silesia (Credit: Draceane)

The War at Home – A Matter of Survival
I soon lost touch with the man’s son, but that dinner continued to reside in the netherworld of my memory for two decades. It arose again after I visited Poland fifteen years later. That was when I started to wonder if I might have passed through the same area where this man had lived. My curiosity grew to the point where one evening I decided to search for him on the internet. Google is the great mystery solver of the modern age. After entering the few bits of information that I could recall, it was not long before I found a biography of Zygmunt Wardzinski. I knew it was him due to the details of his teaching in the Philadelphia area and his son’s name listed as one of his children. Zygmunt’s life in America was successful. His achievements included a master’s degree and doctorate, important positions held at educational institutions and memberships in a range of important organizations. He had a formidable intellect, reflected in his aptitude for languages. He was fluent in Polish, English, Russian, German and Latin. A scholar who managed to find his place in the world, but only after surviving the cataclysm of World War II in Poland.

Like most veterans of the war, Zygmunt did not go into detail about what he experienced during that time. This was understandable. A dinner with people he had not previously met would be a strange setting to recount wartime tales. Not to mention the fact that Poland was one of the most lethal combat zones in human history from 1939 -45. This man had seen and survived things that others could not even begin to fathom. My research on Zygmunt’s life only gave me the bare details of his time in Poland, but that was enough to piece together parts of his past. He was born in Bukowiec, a Silesian village eighty kilometers from the German border. When the war began in 1939, Zygmunt was just sixteen years old and on the cusp of adulthood. He would grow up fast in a baptism of fire. The home front was also the war front, which meant that the battlefield was a classroom. Poland needed all the men they could muster to hold off the German Army. Seventeen days later, the Soviet invaded from the east. The war was over just three weeks after it began.

Fighting for their lives – Polish Home Army soldiers

Going Abroad – A Life of Accomplishment
Zygmunt, along with his compatriots, had no option other than to surrender, yet he would live to fight another day. From 1942- 44 he served in the Polish Home Army. How he survived so long in German occupied Poland is anyone’s guess. Those secrets stayed inside of him. Zygmunt received a new lease on life as he somehow managed to survive the cataclysmic fighting that saw much of the Home Army destroyed by German violence and Soviet malevolence in the final years of the war. By 1945 he was safely abroad with the Polish Army in Italy. His life was now on a new trajectory, one that would bring him to America three years later. His coming of age had occurred in the cauldron of war on the Eastern Front. Like many Eastern Europeans refugees, he could not go home again with the postwar imposition of communism. Instead, Zygmunt washed up on the shores of America, where he would pursue his dreams. He would go on to earn multiple university degrees and lead a life of accomplishment

I have no idea whether Zygmunt Wardzinski is still alive today. I cannot even say for certain that the details delineated above come close to the extraordinary story of his life. What I do know is that if Zygmunt is still alive today, he would be 98 years old. That may seem improbable, but not anymore so than the fact that he survived World War II, became an accomplished educator, and reared a family. A family that brought me into contact with him for one evening long ago. That meeting offers a clue to the roots of my love for Eastern Europe. History and mystery in unequal measure.

Coming soon: Placeholders – Bulgaria & Montana: Taking Names (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny # 47)  

If The Shoe Fits – Slovakia’s Shoe Museum: A Step Forward Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #45)

Before he became a world-famous author of such beloved travel books as A Walk In the Woods, In A Sunburned Country and Notes From A Small island, Bill Bryson authored a book that few are aware of and even fewer can manage to get their hands on. The Palace Under The Alps and 200 Other Unusual, Unspoiled, and Infrequently Visited Spots in 16 European Countries was Bryson’s second book.  Published in 1985, the book was neither a bestseller nor mildly popular. That is a shame because Bryson put an incredible amount of effort into visiting so many off the beaten path places. Bryson has never disavowed the book, but he rarely mentions it. Few even know that it exists. Many of those who do have never seen a copy. There is good reason for that according to an interview Bryson gave to the website Wanderlust, where he said, “It’s a strange book; it was never really in print! The publishers went out of business simultaneously with the book being published…they did actually publish a couple of thousand copies, but they were never sold – the company just went under.”

Best foot forward – Museum of Shoes (Muzeum obuvi) (Credit: Muzeum obuvi)

Collector’s Item – Palace Under the Alps
Copies of The Palace Under The Alps are few and far between. This is a shame because Bryson is in great demand. There would certainly be a market for the book. To prove this, one needs to look no further than Bryson’s first book, The Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which has been republished. The limited print run of The Palace Under The Alps has made it a collector’s item rather than a book of mass market appeal. A quick search of online used bookstores shows several copies for sale, with the cheapest running for $59.95. Only diehard Bryson aficionados are likely to pay this price. Those wanting to get their hands on a copy might look to their local library. This was how my relationship with the book began. While searching the stacks at the Americus Public Library in southwestern Georgia I came across the book, checked it out, and spent some time perusing its pages. The entries were eclectic and a harbinger of Bryson’s later work on places and subjects that his writing would introduce to a much wider audience.

The Palace Under The Alps covers two hundred places in sixteen European countries. While one might assume this means blanket coverage, that is not the case due to the time period in which it was written. That is why Bryson does not mention a single site in Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain cordoned off the region from the rest of Europe until 1989. Bryson’s idiosyncratic style of traveling would not have gone over well in the Eastern Bloc. Most communist countries had minders who accompanied western writers on visits. They would only be allowed to follow officially approved itineraries. This would have defeated Bryson’s journeys to obscure and overlooked sites. The point of The Palace Under The Alps was to find these places in Europe and share them with those who might be interested. Bryson sought hidden gems that he found fascinating. It is a shame that he was unable to include places across Eastern Europe in the book.

Beauty & anonymity – Kluknava (Credit:Jozef Kotulic)

Best Foot Forward – A New Development
I was reminded of Bryson’s book when I learned about the Museum of Shoes (Múzeum obuvi) that recently opened in a Slovakian village. The museum would almost certainly have merited inclusion in Bryson’s book if he had visited the country. Located in Kluknava, a village in the Spis region of eastern Slovakia, that few people other than its inhabitants have ever heard of before. The village would seem to be an odd place to learn about the history of shoes, but eastern Slovakia can use all the help it can get to bring tourists into the region. It is one of the poorer areas in the European Union with a need for economic development.

Besides Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city and a major hub of economic activity, much of the region is rural. It has a wealth of beauty, but not a wealth of money. The economies of towns and villages in eastern Slovakia suffer from economic stagnation. Ironically, the communist period brought more industrial development and factories to the region than ever before. After the change of system from communism to capitalism, most of the factories collapsed. Others managed to hang on for a few years before dissolution. This happened with a shoe factory in Kluknava. Part of the building where it was once housed has now become the Museum of Shoes.

Museums dedicated to shoes are few and far between. Despite being a ubiquitous and essential form of apparel, shoes are not something one would think about putting on display except in places where they are being sold. Those who created and run the Museum of Shoes see things quite differently. They are seizing an opportunity. Kluknava was once a center for shoe making in Czechoslovakia. In a society where name brand shoe manufacturers were rarely, if ever seen. The shoes made at Kluknava were valued by Czechs and Slovaks. A local historian came up with the idea that a shoe museum would be an appropriate use for the building. The fact that there was no shoe museum in Slovakia was hardly surprising. Conversely, the fact that a handful of dedicated people came together to create one is inspiring.

Stepping Into The Past – Muzeum Obuvi (Credit: Muzeum Obuvi)

Style Guide – Stepping into the Past
The Museum of Shoes does more than just focus on the footwear worn by the citizens of Czechoslovakia. The exhibits also have examples of shoes from many other nations.  There are also replicas of shoes going all the way back to prehistoric times. The historical importance of shoes makes perfect sense to anyone who has tried to walk around without them. In earlier centuries, shoes were valued above all else for their functionality. Walking around without shoes prior to the modern age would have been much more difficult since there was neither pavement nor sidewalks. Shoes were essential to local travel and good health. They were also essential to the livelihood of those who repaired them. The Museum of Shoes also contains a shoemaker’s workshop. This was an essential trade for many centuries before industrialization and the rise of mass production facilities. The Museum of Shoes helps visitors realize just how far humanity has come on foot. It is a step forward for eastern Slovakia’s tourist offerings and the village of Kluknava.

Click here for: Displaced Person – Zygmunt Wardzinski: Eastern Frontal Assault (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny # 46) 

Love, Life & Loss – An Eastern European Education (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #44)

I have a rendezvous with an obscure destiny that has led me to spend the past decade researching, traveling, and writing about Eastern Europe. Why did a region that became largely anonymous to the world after 1989 gain such a hold on my imagination. Maybe it was all those international sporting events I watched during my childhood. The Cold War was much more than a political, economic, and military contest. There was also a cultural cold war that made its way to the sports world. Soviet hammer throwers, Bulgarian weightlifters, East German swimmers, Romanian gymnasts, and Yugoslavian basketball players were a source of endless fascination. The frozen faces of their coaches, the party men in dark suits watching from impenetrable perches, the rumors of rampant drug use, boycotts, and allegations of extreme partisanship by referees all made for must-see television. As an impressionable adolescent living in the foothills of western North Carolina, the sports world was my portal to what seemed like another planet.

Point of Departure – Windows in abandoned home in the village of Gederlek, Hungary

Intimidating & Mysterious – Cold War Curiosities
The Winter Olympics provided two of the moments which have stuck in my memory the longest. In 1980 they held in Lake Placid, New York where the United States faced the Soviet Union in the men’s hockey semifinals. I can still remember watching the television broadcast where announcer Al Michaels exclaimed, “Do you believe in miracles?” as the Americans pulled off an upset for the ages. Four years later, I watched Jim McKay in Sarajevo stand amid swirling flakes of snow. Events such as the Men’s Downhill Skiing competition was delayed due to the heavy snow. Little did anyone know at the time, but less than a decade later Yugoslavia would disintegrate. This would have dreadful consequences for Sarajevo which would endure death and destruction during a nightmarish siege.

There was also the international tennis tour where several of the world’s best players hailed from the Eastern Bloc, in particular Czechoslovakia. These players included Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova. Each one of them ended up in the west, but their frosty dispositions were intimidating and mysterious. They left me wondering what life was really like east of the Iron Curtain. I found these people and the places they came from compelling. No one, least of all me, had any idea that in the early 1990’s Czechoslovakia would also cease to exist. International sports events were my first window into a world that seemed well beyond reach. Only diplomats or exchange students led by official handlers were able to cross that divide. Every westerner who set foot in the Eastern Bloc was immediately under suspicion. It never occurred to me that in the very near future we would be welcomed in many of those forbidden places with open arms.

Miracle On Ice – American hockey players celebrate victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid

Recreating The World – A Subconscious Desire
My interest in Eastern Europe also stemmed from growing up during a period of heightened Cold War tensions. Now all but forgotten is the fact that during the first half of the 1980’s the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction as relations between the United States and Soviet Union were marked by distrust, fear, and paranoia. Eastern Europe was caught in the middle. As such, the region took on an importance that is hard to imagine for anyone who did not live through those times. For me, Eastern Europe was an endless source of fascination. I feel the same way today. That might be why I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out why.

Of late, I have formulated another theory for my obsession with Eastern Europe. This one is not easy to admit because it is shrouded in darkness. To put it simply, I feel a strange kinship to its history of loss. A region whose history – particularly in the 20th century – was marked by so much loss is where I feel most at home. Sometimes I wonder what that says about me. I have been fascinated for as long as I can remember with abandoned places, obscure parts of the world that are largely unrecognized, remote locales where the history that happened there is either mostly forgotten or willfully ignored. Uncovering stories that should be well known and are not, takes a combination of curiosity and indefatigable effort. The task can seem thankless. Sometimes I wonder if anyone other than me is interested. Of course, we do not live for others – no matter how seemingly altruistic our actions – we live for ourselves. I am really searching in the Lviv’s and Ljubljana’s for myself.

I have come to the realization that during my travels in Eastern Europe, I subconsciously try to recreate the world in which I grew up. A broken home, trying to understand how a single person’s inexplicable actions left me wanting for the rest of my life, the impossible recovery of an irretrievable loss, the search for affirmation in every stranger’s eyes, the feeling of intense loneliness, and the even more intense feeling of wanting to be left alone. The pursuit at times can be gratifying and maddening, irritating and revealing. The strangest thing is that I have come to realize that eventually this land of loss will one day be lost to me. Sometime in the near or distant future these travels will come to an end. That will be one of the greatest losses of my life. Perhaps that is why I keep returning to the region to see what I can discover of its history, and through that history something of myself. As long as I travel in the region, the search for loss will continue. It is an affliction that I both desire and suffer.

Remnant – Symbol from the 1984 Winter Olympics in the mountains near Sarajevo (Credit: Hedwig Klawuttke)

Lost In Place – Distant Ancestors
Eastern Europe would seem to be a strange place to conduct such a search. At least for me. I have not a single Eastern European ancestor. And yet I feel to this very day a kinship to the region that I cannot quite explain. Perhaps it is that feeling of loss I see reflected in the crumbling castles, the derelict palaces, the half-abandoned villages, the vacant rural bus stops and those stillborn births of 20th century utopian dreams that morphed into nightmares. There is a level of loss to be found in Eastern Europe beyond compare. The things that once fascinated me have failed. The Czechoslovakia’s and Yugoslavia’s no longer exist, the cultural cold war is now nothing more than a notion that gets very little attention except in campus basements or in the memories of middle-aged men still fascinated by a world that helped form them. I am one of those men, forever looking for what was lost. I can never quite seem to find what I am looking for, but that will not stop me from trying until the love of life and loss runs out.

Click here for: If The Shoe Fits – Slovakia’s Shoe Museum: A Step Forward Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #45)

The Last Outpost – Ghimes-Faget:  The Right & Wrong Side of a Transylvanian Border (Rendezvous with an Obscure Destiny #43)

There was a time when I believed that traveling to every county in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was going to be part of my future. That has undergone a reconsideration due to the constraints of age and my interest in other parts of Eastern Europe. Theoretically, I still might make that goal, but travel, like life, is not a checklist. The point of travel for me is to catch glimpses of lost worlds. The lands that were formerly part of Austria-Hungary will forever be my favorite place to find them. That vanished empire reminds me of myself.

Austria-Hungary was a web of complex contradictions. The cosmopolitanism and intellectual ferment of Vienna juxtaposed with the illiteracy and squalor of Galicia. The austere Calvinism of Transylvania and the ornate spiritualism of the painted monasteries of Bukovina. The diversity of the old empire was positively kaleidoscopic while the ruling authorities were regressively reactionary. The empire was defined by its contradictions. I often feel the same way about myself. I have spent my life going to extremes. This has led me to search at the far ends of a vanished empire to explore the different sides of myself. What I have not always been able to do physically, I can more than make up for mentally. Between trips, I find myself dreaming of a distant frontier, on the extreme fringes of Transylvania at Ghimes-Faget.

The Last Outpost -Guardhouse #30 on the edge of Ghimes-Faget

The Last Outpost -Guardhouse #30 on the edge of Ghimes-Faget (Credit: Bodka)

Clearing Customs – A Passing Phase
In the mountains of eastern Romania stand one of the outstanding relics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A hundred years after the empire’s dissolution, there remains a small four-sided building standing beside a set of railroad tracks. The building, painted in a coat of vibrant yellow with dark green shutters and a freshly tiled red stucco roof, stands just beyond a bridge over the Trotus River. The building’s exterior has been immaculately restored. A wreath wrapped in ribbons that are the same color as the Hungarian flag hangs close to the entrance. The building has a small plaque affixed to the façade stating that this was an old Austro-Hungarian guardhouse. The first and last one in the empire.

Ghimes-Faget is not the sort of place many people would know. It is a small commune (akin to a town) of 5,400 people in eastern Romania, best known for two things. The first is for its role as one of the largest settlements of the mysterious Csango ethnic group and a hub for their culture. The second, is its fantastical natural beauty. While that makes it memorable for those who discover it, that hardly means it is of national importance. In a nation of 20 million people with over 2,200 communes, a place like Ghimes-Faget is easily overlooked. An outsider passing through the town by train might be forgiven for thinking that the commune has a much greater importance than shown by its size. That is because of its train station which is both grand and massive.

It is the type of train station more often found in large cities. As a matter of fact, the same design and scale of a station can be found in two other cities, Szeged in Hungary and Rijeka in Croatia.  Those two cities have respectively, thirty and twenty-four times the amount of population that Ghimes-Faget does. What is going on here? Ghimes-Faget’s railway station offers a clue to the commune’s earlier history. A little over a century ago, it was both the final and first stop in Austria-Hungary, depending upon whether a traveler was entering or exiting the empire. A place where customs would be cleared while passage was allowed or denied. Ghimes-Faget was a town whose economy and its inhabitant’s employment largely depended on the border. That was until the border suddenly disappeared, ending an era in the commune’s history which had been several hundred years in the making.

Bordering On Obscurity -Ghimes-Faget today

Bordering On Obscurity -Ghimes-Faget today (Credit: Tibor Varkonyi)

Position Power – A Quirk Of History
Being a border town had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. Ghimes-Faget or as it was known in the pre-1920 era by its Hungarian name, Gyimesbukk, gained an advantageous economic position due to its location. This was where goods and merchandise were imported and exported, providing a much needed boost to the local economy. Customs officials and border personnel with their salaries and families came to live in the community. This advantageous situation was balanced out by one of its main drawbacks, insecurity. Changes in political or military affairs could cause Gyimesbukk to lose its status overnight. Once gone, its former importance would likely vanish forever. The same could be said for its economic prosperity. In retrospect, Gyimesbukk was one of those places held hostage by a situation over which it had no control. When it came to prosperity and importance everything depended on political developments that took place hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away.

Gyimesbukk’s role as a border outpost was a quirk of history, but one that had come into being long before the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  During the 18th and part of the 19th century it stood on the Habsburg side of its border with the Ottoman Empire. On each side were two different types of civilization whose innumerable clashes had eventually resulted in a peace that placed Gyimesbukk along a new political frontier. Of course, this one was artificial like all political borders. Its time predictably came and went. When the Ottoman’s receded, Romania was formed. Gyimesbukk then assumed the role it would play until after World War I. Once Austria-Hungary collapsed and the Treaty of Trianon was ratified the town became part of Romania. This was not the end of its role on a border though. For even today Ghimes-Faget assumes that position.

The Unchanged - Gyimesbukk Csangos

The Unchanged – Gyimesbukk Csangos

Bordering On Obscurity – A Home For The Csango
Ghimes-Faget continues to be both a final and first outpost, in geographical terms it always has been. For the commune is located on the southeastern extremity of Transylvania. One pass away from Moldavia. Mountains make better borders than political ones. The commune lies in the stunningly beautiful Trotus Valley, where the river of that same name runs through the commune. The town is now, as it has been in the past, a refuge for one of the smallest and most unique minority groups in Eastern Europe, the Csangos. No one quite knows where the Csangos originated from and that includes themselves. Ironically, the meaning of Csango in Hungarian means to wander or go away. They certainly have wandered further east than any other Hungarian speakers and that includes what is likely their closest ethnic kin, the Szekelys. It is thought the Csangos were originally Szekelys, another group whose origins are in doubt. The Szekelys predominate in eastern Transylvania, while most of the Csangos can be found in Moldavia, principally Bacau County. The exception is those Csangos who inhabit the commune that they still call Gyimesbukk.

The Csango’s adherence to traditional folkways, most noticeably in dress and ceremonial customs, makes them as close to a living specimen of the original Hungarians as one is likely to find. Their archaic dialect has more in common with Old Hungarian than any other derivation of the language. Much of this has been preserved by their isolation from outside influences. Outside of its role on the border, Ghimes-Faget is an ideal environment for Csango cultural preservation. The last outpost of an empire is now the same for a mysterious people. Ghimes-Faget’s place in the world is much like that of the Csangos, remote, undiscovered and stuck deep in the past. A place and a people bordering on obscurity. If only we could all be so lucky.

Click here for: Love, Life & Loss – An Eastern European Education (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #44)

Blinded By Reality – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42b)

If I had to name a favorite despot, it would almost certainly be Basil The Bulgar Slayer. Ever since I heard his name and honorific mentioned by Dr. Kenneth Harl in a lecture twenty years ago, I have enjoyed a strange fascination with Basil. His name demanded that I pay closer attention to his life and work. Basil overcame enemies at home and abroad to become one of the greatest emperors in Byzantine History. Because of his exploits, he was both hero and villain. That complexity makes him much more compelling as a historical figure. There is no greater example of this, than what Basil did after defeating the Bulgars at the Battle of Kleidion.

Victory at Kleidion – Byzantines defeating Bulgars (Credit: Chronicle of Ioannis Skylitzis)

Bleeding The Bulgars – Wars of Attrition
The ascension of Basil the Bulgar Slayer to legendary status started long before the Battle of Kleidon, where his army fought and won a decisive engagement that was the defining moment of Basil II’s reign as Byzantine Emperor. His defeat of the Bulgars at the battle may have been the most important victory Basil ever won, but the seeds of his success went all the way back to the late 10th century when he slowly, but inexorably gained the upper hand in his numerous battles with the Bulgars. It may not have the same cachet as winning a glorious victory on the field of battle, but reforms in the empire were the foundation upon which his later military victories were built. Most important of these were Basil’s reforms to the taxation system which made it fairer and more equitable across the empire. This reform checked the Byzantine aristocracy’s power. Basil never trusted the aristocracy and for good reason. They had tried to usurp his power, but Basil would not be anyone’s puppet. Instead he became the puppet master.

Basil’s reforms stripped the landed aristocracy of their power and centralized imperial control. For instance, he would allow payment in lieu of military service. The money that came into the state treasury was then used to pay for mercenaries who were loyal only to Basil. During his reign, the state coffers were overflowing with tax revenues. Basil was then to use that money to finance his military endeavors. The campaigns against the Bulgars were some of most important in Byzantine history. While most of them were only mildly successful, they slowly weakened the Bulgars. This put Byzantium’s biggest external enemy on the defensive.

The Bulgars did not have anywhere near the resources of Byzantium. And Basil’s army made sure they would lack them by frequently campaigning, especially in Macedonia. They pillaged Bulgar territory on an almost annual basis. After years of on again, off again warfare, the Bulgars had been sufficiently weakened. In essence they were losing a war of attrition. This strategic ploy by Basil made the Bulgars ripe for conquest. The final blow would come during the summer of 1014, when Basil’s army faced off against a force led by Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria. At the time, neither Basil nor Samuel perceived that from a historical perspective the battle would be a making or breaking point for both men. The moment of decision came at the Battle of Kleidion.

Moment of decision – Basil II passes judgment on a foe (Credit: John Skylitzes)

Delivering The Final Blow – The Battle of Kleidion
Tsar Samuel’s Bulgarian forces cannot be faulted for their preparation in advance of the Byzantine incursion into their territory. As for Basil and his army, they had been playing a long game with the Bulgars until they could deliver a massive blow that would crush the Bulgars. The only problem was knowing when and where to deliver that blow. Fortunately for the Byzantines, Basil II was a superb military commander surrounded by a trusted group of generals who would carry out his plan. In 1014, Basil prepared to strike once again into Bulgaria.

Due to years of attrition, Samuel’s forces could only go on the defensive. He figured their fortifications were stout enough to keep the Byzantines at bay. One of the passes his army secured was Kleidion, which led into the Strumsa valley. This route went into the heart of Samuel’s domains. When Basil’s forces tried to cross the pass, they literally hit a wall in the form of a timber palisade. An attempt to storm the palisade resulted in a high rate of casualties. The only way around it would have involved marching a great distance to either the east or west and then crossing the mountains. This was unfeasible because the distance was so great. By the time the Byzantines made such a detour, the campaigning season would have ended.

One of Basil’s commanders, Niketas Xiphias, came up with another idea. He took a small force with him to try and find a way over the mountains. He was able to locate a bypass by going over a mountain to the west. While Xiphias was getting his force over the mountains, Basil launched limited assaults against the palisade to distract the Bulgars. On July 29th, Xiphias’ force suddenly appeared in the rear of Samuel’s army. The Bulgars were now surrounded. When they turned to face Xiphias’ force, this allowed Basil’s army to breakthrough.

The Battle of Kleidon then turned into a complete rout. Those Bulgars who could, fled for their safety. Many more were killed and an estimated 15,000 captured. They were now at the not so tender mercies of Basil. He wanted to send a message to Samuel and the Bulgars that they would never forget. Basil had the prisoners divided into groups of 100 men. He then ordered that 99 of the 100 in each group be blinded. One prisoner out of 100 had only a single eye blinded. That way, one man would be able to lead his column back to Samuel. Imagine the sight (no pun intended) of 150 columns of 100 men each being led back to Tsar Samuel by a one eyed soldier. It must have been a horrific scene. History bears this out.

The Byzantines under defeat the Bulgarians & Tsar Samuel dying in front of his blinded soldiers (Credit: Manasses Chronicle)

The Judgment of History – Pathological Motives
When the blinded men finally made it back to Tsar Samuel, he was said to have been mortified by the sight of his disabled soldiers standing blindly before him. At that point, Samuel had either a heart attack, stroke or seizure. He died soon thereafter. Basil had psychologically destroyed his greatest foe. It would take four more years before he managed to completely conquer Bulgaria. That conquest assured his legacy. Blinding the Bulgar prisoners assured he would never be forgotten by Bulgars who still loathe him and Greeks who still love him. Basil really was a Bulgar slayer. One who would go down in the history books as both famous and infamous. Basil deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest Byzantine Emperors in the empire’s long and checkered history. He will most likely be remembered only for slaying and blinding Bulgars. Judging by his actions, Basil would probably be fine with that.

Click here for: The Last Outpost – Ghimes-Faget: The Right & Wrong Side of a Transylvanian Border (Rendezvous with an Obscure Destiny #43)

Making A Name For Himself – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42a)

I can still remember the first time I heard his name. It was one of those moments that catches your attention and captures the imagination. It happened on a long drive between Arizona and the East Coast twenty years ago. I still have not forgotten the moment that I heard the name along with the story that gave rise to it. I was listening to the World of Byzantium by Dr. Kenneth Harl, an outstanding series of twenty-four lectures on the Byzantine Empire produced by The Teaching Company (now known as the Great Courses). I would hope that anyone who comes across a name like Basil the Bulgar Slayer in the annals of history takes notice. I certainly did. Somewhere out along Interstate 10 in West Texas, I put the cassette for Lecture 18 – Imperial Zenith, Basil II into the tape deck. Within seconds, I heard Harl tell of Basil II’s exploits in elevating the empire to its peak during the Middle Ages. From that moment right up through today, Basil the Bulgar Slayer has remained in the back of my mind.

Basil’s incredible reign, which lasted almost half a century (976 – 1025), set a record for longevity in the Byzantine Empire. During this time, he regained much of Anatolia, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Basil checked the power of the landed aristocracy and co-opted their finances to pay off debt incurred by the peasantry. He fought many successful military campaigns. Just three years before his death, he was still out on campaign. Basil’s achievements were of such magnitude that those who came after him found the standard he had set impossibly high. It only took a couple of generations for those achievements to dissolve after he died in 1025. Outside of Byzantine scholars and armchair medieval history buffs who have an interest in Byzantine history, few have heard of the emperor. It is a shame. Anyone with the name and attached honorific of Basil the Bulgar Slayer is worthy of greater notice.

Covered in Glory – Emperor Basil II

Enemies Within & Without – The World of Byzantium
The history of the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages in Eastern Europe is rather obscure, at least to westerners. That is especially true the further south one ventures. The era can seem like little more than a succession of strange invasions by Slavs, Turks, and Finno-Ugric peoples who either held their own (Bulgars and Magyars) or were relegated to obscurity (Avars and Khazars). During this period, Byzantium was constantly under threat. Its hold over imperial hinterlands such as the Balkans was tenuous at best. This situation was made worse by the Byzantine leaders who fought among themselves. Enemies within the empire were as frightening as external enemies.

The Byzantine elite was filled with dangerous intriguers all vying to build a power base. Lurid court politics at the highest levels was a way of life. Anyone, including close family members, was capable of duplicitous behavior in the hopes of gaining a prized position. It was survival of the cleverest. No one was safe, certainly not emperors. Several of Basil’s predecessors may or may not have been poisoned to death. The best that one could hope for if their plot failed, was to be mutilated or blinded before being sent into permanent exile. This was a fate that Basil managed to avoid, if only by a narrow margin.

Of all Basil II’s successful exploits, he will always be remembered for how he received the honorary title of Bulgar slayer. He was able to deal with the Bulgar problem that had plagued Byzantium for over a century. The Bulgars had overrun much of the empire’s territory in the Balkans and formed the First Bulgarian Empire. Like every empire in world history, the Bulgarian one would not last, but it would take one of the greatest emperors in Byzantine history to bring the Bulgars to their knees.

Formidable foe – Monument to Tsar Samuel in Sofia (Credit: Vladev)

Battling The Bulgars – At The Gates of Trajan
Ironically, Basil’s battle with the Bulgars was initially marked by setbacks in which he almost lost his life. An early defeat that nearly turned catastrophic occurred when he attempted to besiege Serdica (modern day Sofia, Bulgaria). Despite siege equipment and three weeks of assaults, the attacks failed to produce any positive gains. The siege took a turn for the worse when the Bulgars came out from behind the city walls and successfully assaulted Basil’s force. With his army’s siege equipment now in tatters and suffering from hunger, Basil directed a retreat. The march back to Byzantine territory ended in disaster for his army. A surprise attack on his army was planned and executed by the man who would become one of Basil II’s greatest archenemy, Tsar Samuel.

Basil’s army was surrounded and ambushed at the Gates of Trajan, a narrow pass in the Sredna Gora Mountains. As Basil’s forces retreated from Serdica there was growing disorder in his ranks. The soldiers heard rumors that the Bulgars had blocked their way over the mountains. Tsar Samuel’s forces were able to encircle the Byzantine army and destroy most of it. The imperial seal was also lost in the battle. Only an elite force of Armenian fighters was able to slip over the pass and avoid destruction. Fortunately for Basil II, he was with this group. Though he was wounded, he would live to fight another day. It would be almost three decades before he would finally exact his revenge on Tsar Samuel and the Bulgars.

Passing through – Ruins of a fortress at the Gates of Trajan (Credit: manevpe)

Making Examples – Seeds of Vengeance  
This resounding defeat at the hands of the Bulgars did not help Basil II back in Constantinople. Soon enough, another in a long line of potential usurpers, Bardas Phokas, proclaimed himself emperor. It was at this point that Basil made a decision that would ensure his security into the foreseeable future. He betrothed his sister to Vladimir of Kiev. In exchange, Basil was given 6,000 Varangian warriors, ferocious soldiers from the far north. Basil and the Varangians quickly went on the offensive. Phokas was soon defeated and sent into exile.

Three generals who had led rebel forces against Basil were executed. He made examples out of them by having each executed in a different manner. One was hung, another impaled and the other crucified. The message was clear. Anyone who committed treachery against Basil would pay with their life. Basil’s vengeance was swift and sure within the empire. It would take him longer to exact revenge upon the Bulgarians, but when he did the result would be so unforgettable that it is still remembered today.

Click here for: Blinded By Reality – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42b)

Reaching The Point of No Return – Schloss Esterhazy & Haydnsaal (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #41)

Certain places in Eastern Europe haunt my imagination long after I have left them. That is because though I have left those places, they never leave me. On some random Tuesday, years after a visit, a place resurfaces inside of me. Suddenly it becomes so real that I feel an unbearable urge to return. This is followed by the stark realization that I have probably made my only one and only visit there. A depressing thought, but understandable. I was lucky to ever travel so far and wide across a region that captured my curiosity. I should be grateful for all those opportunities to visit. And yet I want more, too much of Eastern Europe was never going to be enough. Greed sometimes gets the better of me in these moments.

I want to go back, so I can feel the way I did on that first visit. This is a fool’s game that I love to play. Even though deep down inside I realize that romanticizing my own past travels is little more than self-seduction. Thus, I try to put thoughts of a return trip out of my mind. I resign myself to the fact that returning to places I have never left, at least mentally, would only lead to a letdown. These places are what I call the neverlands. Places that it pains me to know I will never return to again. Places that have passed my own personal point of no return. Strangely enough, a place I rarely thought about after visiting, has now come back to remind me that there are places deep within me that I will only return to mentally.

Fantasyland – Schloss Esterhazy

Provincial Glamor – A Candy-Coated Confection
For reasons likely to always remain unknown to me, I keep having recurring thoughts of Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria. This is not entirely unexpected because the palace is one of the more memorable attractions I have experienced. A visit to this candy-coated confection covered in an eyepopping coat of cream is not to be missed if you find yourself in the Burgenland. This Austrian province is one of the least visited in the country. Located in the far eastern part of the country, in many respects it is un-Austrian. Rather than towering alpine peaks, there is rich cropland, rolling hills, and low mountains. Though Vienna is never more than an hour or two away at most, the rural nature of the Burgenland provides a compelling counterpoint to the sophistication and high culture of the Austrian capital. Eisenstadt is the closest thing to an urban oasis in the Burgenland with plenty of elegant buildings, immaculately swept streets, and industrious Austrians uber focused on the business at hand.

The Schloss Esterhazy is Eisenstadt’s gleaming set piece. There is no way anyone passing through Eisenstadt could miss the palace. The Schloss is glamorous to the point of glitzy, a Baroque attraction on steroids. That it is found in the Burgenland, makes its shock value that much more sensational. The exterior is the apotheosis of aristocratic architectural sensibilities. The interior is not too bad either. The experience of Esterhazy Palace is like having your cake and eating it too, in the most aesthetic sense of those words. The exterior and interior match one another in exquisiteness.

For me, one specific room in the Schloss keeps coming to mind, the Haydnsaal. This ornate piece of architectural fantasia was used for banquets and festivals. The room takes its name from Joseph Haydn, the Esterhazy court composer whose works of musical brilliance were often debuted in what is still today a perfect acoustical environment. The ceiling of the Haydnsaal is covered in a swirl of beautiful frescoes portraying scenes taken from classical works. To think of the moment, I stood in the Haydnsaal brings me the greatest of pleasure. To realize that I am unlikely to ever stand there again, fills me with an equal amount of sadness.

In the Burgenland – Village near Eisenstadt (Credit: C Stadler/Bwag)

Fantasyland – Wanderer’s World
I have searched my mind as much as I have searched Eastern Europe for the reasons why certain places occur and reoccur in my memory. One of the conclusions I have come to is that those places most vivid to me are the ones for which I cannot or will not ever return. This is a sobering thought. A few years ago, I had a chance of returning to Eisenstadt, revisiting the Schloss Esterhazy, and standing once again in the Haydnsaal, but did not take it. The reason for not taking this opportunity now escapes me. The memory of that failure does not. I now see this as part of my destiny and the future of my travels in the region. The no return policy that plagues me is for a very good reason.

Forgive me for stating the obvious about my Eastern European obsession, but there is so much to see and so little time. It is one thing to say this and quite another to realize it. Lately, I have come to the understanding that I have been running out of time in my Eastern European travels from the day I first set foot on the tarmac at the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria over a decade ago. Back then my head was spinning so much from sensory overload that I could not conceive that I was already running out of time. For an obsessive, there can never be enough time to pursue their passion to the most extreme lengths. Eastern Europe offered me a sprawling canvas with so much history, travel and culture that I could conceivably go on forever. That was not realistic. Then again, realism is unromantic. Fantasyland was where I found myself. The Haydnsaal was one iteration of that fantastical world in which I wandered.

Ornate perfection – The Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Numbers Games – Watching The Clock
My passion for places such as the Schloss Esterhazy showed just how little reality meant to me. That was until one day I came to a stunning realization. I was closer to the end of my travels than to the beginning of them. I hope that this would turn out to be an unfounded fear. A manifestation of too many close calls with mortality. This is the type of thought that I assume many have while growing older and becoming aware of their limitations. The thought of twenty more trips to Eastern Europe is as impossible to imagine as the first twenty were to complete. Obsessive travelers would tell me that this is not a numbers game.

My retort would be that age is a numbers game, the price of flight tickets is a numbers game, the time taken to travel is a numbers game, life expectancy is a numbers game. Why should my travel life expectancy be any different? The problem is that my Eastern European travels used to be guided by intuition. Now they are being foreshowed by a premonition. Perhaps it is an overstatement to say that this is an intimation of mortality, more like a confrontation with reality. All I ever really wanted was an enhanced version of reality, one like Schloss Esterhazy and the Haydnsaal. The memory of which is now inseparable from the thought that I have reached my point of return.

Click here for: Making A Name For Himself – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42a)

Lusting For Life – Boldogko Castle: History Without Humanity (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #40)

At the gates of Boldogko Castle I found a living relic of the past. A man was standing in front of me, on the cobbled walkway that led up to the castle interior. He was dressed in period clothing, looking like a cross between a monk, a sage and a weaponless knight. Dressed in all black except for a white cross emblazoned on his shirt, this man was the castle guide. He looked ever ready and extremely eager, as though he had been waiting all morning for someone, anyone to show up at the castle gates. Whether anyone wanted a tour or not, he was going to give them one. It was obvious he took his job seriously. The early morning temperature was less than freezing. While I was wearing multiple layers, including a toboggan pulled tight over my head.

The guide was bare headed, his clothes looked loose and thin, but he was sprightly and energetic, the polar opposite of the gloomy weather. I began to wonder just how many cups of coffee he had downed to achieve such a state. Then again, his enthusiasm seemed so genuine that I believed the castle and its history was his own personal meth. As such, he won me over not with his historical knowledge which was vast, but the seriousness of his enthusiasm. Here was someone who took history seriously. By his demeanor, I could tell that he believed his audience should do the same. As such, I was soon following closely on his heels, going upwards, to and through the castle’s interior.

The Hardcore - Guide at Boldogko Castle

The Hardcore – Guide at Boldogko Castle

Written In Stone – The Power Of Fragments
No matter how enthusiastic the guide, his tour lacked in one very important respect. He focused on the castle’s structure rather than the people who had created, owned and shaped its history over hundreds of years. This was problematic because though the architectural history of the castle was dynamic, with periods of construction, destruction and reconstruction the portions of the castle which existed today were neat, but did not form a cohesive whole. In that way, architectural history is much like human history, fragmented and chaotic. The problem with Boldogko Castle was that it had been partly demolished, not by an assault or siege, but during an occupation. After the Ottoman Turks had been forcibly removed from Hungary by the Habsburgs in the late 17th century, the Hungarians were at the point of rebelling against their Austrian overlords. The Habsburgs had fortress castles such as Boldogko blown up due to Rackozi’s War of Independence which lasted from 1703 – 1711. This was done to keep the Hungarians from using them in another revolt. Fortunately, not of all the castle was destroyed. Enough was still left that the castle could be partially reconstructed.

There was a gate tower and a south tower both reconstructed, a wing where the castle’s palace once was located, a mill bastion and another tower that went all the way back to the castle’s earliest days. All of this was interesting because it evoked the look and feel of multiple historical ages that had all but disappeared into the past. The castle was like a textbook of Hungarian history from the late 13th through the early 18th century, if only the guide could have interpreted rather than informed. What good did it do me to know the years that the tower was constructed or the many modifications the castle had undergone. What I needed was someone who could interpret the human soul and spirit that had made this place more than a mere prominence on a map. The architectural history divorced the castle from its human historical context. This resulted in a depth of meaning that never penetrated below the surface. Every part of the castle had a human decision behind its construction, but I never learned what those decisions were or why they were made.

The Cold Reality – Life At Boldogko Castle
Later I did a bit of research in which I discovered that the first owner of Boldogko Castle was likely the Amad family. They built the castle to guard the trade route between the Hernad Valley and the city of Kassa (Kosice Slovakia), as well as to exercise control over the surrounding estates. Unfortunately they made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of King Robert Karoly. The King turned the castle over to the Drugeths, a powerful family from Italy who were the largest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary during the 14th century. Later there would be another foreign owner, the Brankovics, a Serbian family that was bequeathed the castle in return for Hungarian rule over Nandorfehervar (Belgrade). Among the other owners were a withering confusion of noble families full of strange sounding Hungarian surnames such as Czugar, Szapolyai, Rackozi, Pechy and Zichy. Their stays were all temporary, as was a more recent presence.

During the four decades of communist rule, part of the castle was transformed into a hotel. Our guide showed us this wing, which I found the most interesting, not because of any architectural features, but due to the fact that the patrons during the winter (if there were any) most have nearly frozen to death. The castle was drafty, dank and filled with a pervasive frigidity that chilled to the bone. The idea of staying in a castle might sound like a fantastical experience, but in reality it would be cold, hard and incredibly boring.  Visiting Boldogko Castle for a couple of hours was enchanting, a couple of days would have been irritating. The idea of Boldogko Castle as comfortable did not seem plausible, whether back during its historical heyday or now. It was built for security not leisure, to impose and impress with power. The energetic guide covered every room in the castle and interesting points to be found outside as well. The sum of his knowledge added up to a less than satisfying experience. All that information lacked the one main ingredient that can really move an audience, passion.

Path to the past - Boldogko Castle

Path to the past – Boldogko Castle

An Untold Story – The Human Aspect
To be fair to the guide, it was easy enough to inform visitors about what still existed, namely the structural aspects of the castle. All the people who had once ruled or inhabited the castle were an entirely different story, that was to remain untold. They were just as dead as the ages they had lived in. The human history of the castle could not easily be related. Understanding it required a deep knowledge of Hungarian nobility. Despite my feelings on this, I must admit that the guide’s charisma and emotion was a testament to his dedication and zeal for history. He served the castle well. The ability to bring its human past back to life was what he lacked. Of course, that is incredibly difficult, but at a place like Boldogko Castle it almost seems possible.

Click here for: Reaching The Point of No Return – Schloss Esterhazy & Haydnsaal (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #40) 

Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

For some reason that I am unlikely to ever truly understand, I am attracted to danger. In other words, I feel most alive in moments most people dread. History is one way for me to satisfy my affinity for danger. I find reading about people in grave danger a source of fascination. That was how I came across stories from one of the most frightening places on earth during the 20th century. It had been said that fear ran so deep in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, that people kept a bag packed with clothing just in case they were arrested., The arrests usually happened at night. The potential arrestee might hear a car pull up to their flat or house. This would be followed by a knock at the door.

Opening the door, they would be met by NKVD agents (precursor to the KGB) who had come to take them away. Sometimes people did not answer the door. When the NKVD agents broke through the door, they would find an open window. The person being arrested had jumped out the window. In some cases, they were trying to escape. In other cases, they were committing suicide. Some people would even jump out a window to their death as soon as they heard a car pull up. They had no idea whether it was the NKVD or not, but they many did not care to find out. If there is a greater definition of fear than that, I have not heard of one.

In memory – Stone marking where Masaryk fell outside of Czernin Palace (Credit: Ervin Pospisil)

Sheer Despair – An Open Window
We will probably never know if Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, had a similar experience to Soviet citizens during the Stalinist era. It is plausible because of what happened the night of March 10, 1948, when Masaryk was either killed or killed himself. There were only two ways about it. Differentiating between the two has always been and will likely always be the problem. Was he aware that someone was coming to kill him? Did he hear a car pull up? Footsteps on the way to his residence? In Masaryk’s case. that someone would likely have been the NKVD or people trained by the NKVD not to arrest Masaryk, but to kill him. They would have been told to make it look like an accident.

Then again, Masaryk may have opened a window and jumped, not to flee, but to commit suicide out of sheer despair. Whatever the case, Masaryk’s body was discovered in the courtyard of Czernin Palace below the second story window to his bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, but in this case, Masaryk was not going to bed, he was going to be dead. Since that fateful morning when Masaryk’s body was discovered, there has been speculation about whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Circumstantial evidence points to the latter, but we will probably never know the truth. That has not kept people from having strong opinions on both sides of the matter. Theories of what happened to Masaryk continue to circulate today.

Wartime exile – Jan Masaryk (far right) in Great Britain during World War II (Credit: J.R. Bainbridge)

The Fall Guy – Push Comes To Shove
Jan Masaryk did not seem like a candidate for suicide. He was a level headed, fair minded diplomat, whose sense of duty to Czechoslovakia meant that he stayed in the government long after those opposed to its takeover by the communists had resigned. Masaryk was determined to do right by Czechoslovakia. That determination led to his death. Proponents of the theory that Masaryk committed suicide believe that he killed himself out of despair. Those who were close to him in the days leading up to the incident say that Masaryk had grown increasingly despondent over the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and came to the realization that his position was hopeless. The official determination said as much, but since this came from the communist government many believe that it was a lie. Yet Masaryk’s own secretary believed suicide was the only explanation.

The counterargument is even more compelling. It states something to the effect that Masaryk was thrown out of the window to his death. Some have even called it the “Fourth Defenestration of Prague”, an allusion to the three times in history when crowds took matters into their own hands and tossed officials out the Town Hall window. Whereas those incidents were a case of Hussites or Protestants versus Catholics, in the case of Masaryk, it was ideology rather than religion which formed the basis for his murder. Stalinism was the most virulent strain of communism, one that would not tolerate any opposition. Masaryk’s mere presence in the government was a barrier to creating a totalitarian state. As such, he had to be pushed (quite literally) out of the way or more to the point, out of the window. When push came to shove, Masaryk became the fall guy.

The fallen – Jan Masaryk in coffin at his funeral

The Only Way Out – Death & Dishonor
Those who believe Masaryk was murdered by the NKVD or agents trained by them, point to his size. It would have been difficult for the heavyset Masaryk to climb out the window. And if he did jump, a forensic study done in 2004 shows that he would not have landed where he did. This points to Masaryk being forced out the window and tossed to an ignominious death. The proponents of this theory also point to feces being smeared about the bathroom. It is highly doubtful that Masaryk would have smeared feces before deciding to depart from the world. Another piece of circumstantial evidence concerned the fact that Masaryk had openly stated he would be traveling to London the next day.
The last thing the communists wanted was Masaryk in Great Britain fulminating against the communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. This may have been the communist’s last chance to rid themselves of Masaryk.

Throwing him out the window was a convenient way of making the death look like a suicide. The communists then turned the entire suicide story on its head. They claimed that the western world had driven Masaryk to despair by harshly criticizing him for staying in his cabinet position. The National Front government was a mouthpiece for Czechoslovakia’s communists. This theory seems like a stretch. Masaryk felt he had to stay in the government or even worse would come after him. He, like all Czechoslovak citizens, was in no position to protest the prevailing government narrative. They knew that arrest or worse awaited anyone who did not tow the party line. If they had any doubts, the death of Masaryk reminded them of what could happen to dissenters. It may have looked like an accident, but the message was clear. Death was the only way out in communist Czechoslovakia.

Click here for: Silence Speaks Volumes – Kayakoy: A Greek Ghost Town in Turkey (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #39)