From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

If a person lives long enough in Bucharest, they are bound to experience an earthquake. Most of these earthquakes are relatively minor, often in the range of 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. They offer a reminder that the city is within range of some of the most suspect terrain in Europe. Shockwave after shockwave rises to the surface from deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. In the worst-case scenario, Bucharest is riven by this thunderous force causing the ground to ripple, buildings to buckle and a cacophony of calamity to bellow forth, echoing through the concrete corridors of Romania’s capital city. In the 20th century, few Bucharestians were able to escape this experience. Some felt it more acutely than others, specifically those who were in the city on March 4, 1977.

Epicentered - Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake

Epicentered – Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake (Credit: U.S. Geologocial Survey)

Fatal Fault Lines – Undermining Urbanization
By 1977 Bucharest was a massive city. It had been over three and a half decades since the last time it suffered a major earthquake. That was on November 10, 1940 when the city’s population stood at approximately 800,000. Such a concentrated mass of people in a highly urbanized area exacerbated the number of killed and wounded. The city had suffered more powerful quakes in the past, such as in 1802, but the population at that time had been only 35,000. Put in twenty-two times the amount of people in a much larger, more built up urban environment and the number of casualties was certain to multiply. This was the case in 1977. The population of Bucharest had more than doubled since 1940, growing to over 1.8 million people.

In a city that was bursting with more residents, apartment blocks and other large buildings served to expand the urban footprint. This mass urbanization was the upshot of policies by the communist regime that governed Romania throughout the post-World War II and Cold War eras. More people led to more structures, which in turn increased the likelihood that the next earthquake would cause catastrophic damage. Modernity and calamity were on a collision course encouraged by communist policy. All it would take was another slippage on the fatal fault line deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. Every half century or so this had proved to be Bucharest’s undoing. Such a subterranean shift occurred on the night of March 5, 1977 just as many of the city’s inhabitants were turning in for the night.

Willful Destruction - Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest

Willful Destruction – Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest (Credit: Radu Stefanescu)

A Matter Of Luck, Fate & Structural Engineering  – Plunging Into Ruin
At precisely 10:55 local time the earth began to rumble across eastern Romania with an almost unimaginable force. This became dramatically visible in parts of Bucharest, specifically those with lots of buildings that were constructed in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The overwhelming majority of these had not been constructed with reinforced concrete. The sheer force of the earthquake, estimated at a 7.2 magnitude, sent 28 multi-story buildings across the city center crashing to the ground. The effect must have been terrifying. One building after another disappearing into plumes of dust, cries from the rubble, friends and loved ones buried beneath smoldering ruins. Those who were lucky enough to be in a building that refused to buckle looked on in horror. Were they to be next? What kept the structures In which they stood or slept from plunging into ruin? Could this really be happening? The difference between life and death was a matter of luck, fate and structural engineering.

Bucharest was quickly turned into ground zero for carnage caused by the earthquake. This was in stark contrast to the more powerful 1940 Earthquake (7.7 magnitude), where damage in provincial areas, especially Moldavia and Bessarabia, was greater. Conversely, nine-tenths of those killed or injured in the 1986 earthquake lived in Bucharest. Buildings that had withstood, but also been weakened by the 1940 earthquake now suffered a moment of reckoning many would not survive. Almost all the large buildings that collapsed had been constructed between 1920 and 1940. The immediate and dire consequences of this fact would not be lost on communist party officials, specifically the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was out of the country at the time for a trip abroad to Africa. When the increasingly dictatorial Ceaucescu got back home and surveyed the damage, he saw the ruined areas as less a tragedy and more an opportunity to remake the capital into an ideal showpiece of totalitarian architecture. His future vision of Bucharest was as a socialist-realist architectural utopia. The 1977 Earthquake gave him an unprecedented opportunity to make this vision a reality.

Megalomaniacal Ceausima - Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest

Megalomaniacal Ceausima – Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest (Credit: Contessa Binter)

Ceausima – Systemization’s Failure
Anyone who has spent time in Bucharest cannot help but notice the endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that blot the city skyline in seemingly every direction. These buildings and other concrete concoctions. such as the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, were constructed in the years after the 1977 earthquake. Many of them appeared in the exact same place where buildings had collapsed during the earthquake. Other areas with both damaged and non-damaged buildings underwent demolition to make way for Ceaucescu’s systemization development plan. Nowhere was this process carried out with more thoroughness, lack of empathy and willful disregard for historical architecture than in the creation of the Centrul Civic in Bucharest.

The Centrul Civic as it exists today, covers an area of 8 square kilometers (3.1 square miles). It was overlaid on an area of historic Bucharest where a massive demolition had been carried out by order of the authorities. What the 1977 earthquake did not destroy, the Ceaucescu regime made sure explosives and bulldozers did. Damage caused by the earthquake paled in comparison to the aesthetic and cultural destruction carried out by the regime. It was so vast that a new term was coined for this destruction of Romania’s heritage, Ceausima. A word combined from the first four letters of the dictator’s last name and the last four letters of Hiroshima. This word summed up the wanton demolition and destruction that resulted in the reactionary reasoning which followed the earthquake.

Thus, a natural disaster became the catalyst, impetus and stimulus to further the policy of systemization. The upshot of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal scheme was the destruction of 26 churches, monasteries and synagogues in addition to an array of historic homes and cultural buildings in the area that would become home to the Centrul Civic. In their place came massive residential and civic structures made with marble facades and tons of reinforced concrete. Reasons for the creation of this architectural abomination were twofold. First and foremost, to create a legacy for Ceaucescu. Secondly, to withstand another earthquake. Each of these goals were achieved, just not in the way those who created them assumed. The legacy of Ceaucescu’s systemization program in Bucharest is one ghastly eyesore after another. As for the buildings’ structural integrity, they are likely to withstand another earthquake, but many Romanians probably wish otherwise.



Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Prior to World War II, Sunday was a day of rest in Romania just as it is today. An opportunity to attend church, spend time with family and friends, enjoy a meal, followed by leisure time at home. This was true whether someone lived in a city, town or village. It was what tens of thousands of Romanians were doing in Moldova and Wallachia on November 10, 1940. Little did they suspect that their humble abodes, middle class residences or ornate mansions would suddenly be transformed into death traps, rendered lethal by collapsing columns, caved in roofs and shattered windows.  Their day of rest, relaxation and respite was suddenly interrupted in the worst way possible. At precisely 3:39 in the afternoon one of the worst earthquakes in European history began to rumble upward and outward from the Vrancea Mountains on the southeastern edge of the Carpathians.

The power and ferocity of this earthquake was shocking, but it could not have been that much of a surprise since the ground had been trembling and shaking for months. There had been ample warning beforehand that something was quite literally afoot. On the evening of October 22nd, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale had struck the region. That one had been preceded by several months’ worth of quakes measuring anywhere from 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. The same minor cataclysms had started up again during the final week of October and first week in November. Romanians had no choice but to hope they might get lucky and sidestep what appears in retrospect to have been inevitable. On an ill-fated autumn afternoon their luck had run out.

Rescue operations for survivors in Carlton Bloc

Rescue operations for survivors in Carlton Bloc (Credit: Iosif Berman – National Geogrpahic Romania)

Spectacular Malevolence-  From Modern To Medieval
The shock waves struck the Moldavian, Muntenian and Wallachian countryside with a force that had not been seen since the 1802 earthquake had laid much of the same area to waste. The effects of the 1940 Vrancea Earthquake were felt across a massive swath of Europe, stretching from the Greek Peninsula all the way up into the gloomy forests of northwestern Russia. The epicenter was centered on the town of Panciu, where the homes were reduced to matchsticks. Less than 30 kilometers away, the city of Focsani was transformed into an almost complete ruin. The 1940 earthquake has also been called the Bucharest Earthquake due to the damage it inflicted upon the Romanian capital, but this can be misleading. Rural areas suffered just as much or more devastation. Provincial cities met with unprecedented disaster. Modernity turned to the medieval in a few minutes. All it took to travel back in time several hundred years was a 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

Fate was as unkind to provincial areas as it was to Bucharest. Take for instance, the city of Chisinau (currently the capital of Moldova), with a population seven times less than Bucharest and a much smaller urban footprint. It ended up with almost the same number of buildings destroyed (172 vs. 185) as its bigger brother. In an asymmetrical stroke of spectacular malevolence, the earthquake occurred at a time when Chisinau and Bessarabia (present day Moldova) were undergoing a human disaster the likes of which they had never experienced. The Stalinist Soviet Union had been given carte blanche by Nazi Germany to forcibly annex the territory from Romania. This led to hundreds of thousands being arrested and either sent to the gulag or worse. Another 300,000 refugees fled to Romania, a massive influx that the floundering government was ill suited to manage. Now the Romanian government was also dealing with a natural disaster on an epic scale.

Points Of Collpase– Natural Demolition
In some areas, Bucharest sustained catastrophic damage. Nowhere was this more true than at the Carlton Bloc. In the 1802 Vrancea Earthquake, the city’s tallest building at that time, Coltea Tower, had been reduced to rubble. In 1940, the building which stood above all else in modern Bucharest, the Carlton Block, collapsed. No one expected such a calamity, least of all its builders who believed that this fourteen story, reinforced concrete structure could withstand the mightiest of blows. Tragically, they turned out to be wrong. The Block underwent a deadly natural demolition that ended up taking the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting inhabitants. A photo taken in the quake’s aftermath shows throngs of rescuers taking part in the operation. Their attempts were largely in vain. The concrete which had upheld the Block since its construction, can be seen strewn about in haphazard piles, entombing many of those who had been at home when the earthquake struck.

Carlton Block was the scene of the earthquakes most infamous fatalities and as such they would not soon be forgotten. The collapse of Carlton Block was largely responsible for Bucharest becoming inextricably linked with the destructive force of the 1940 earthquake.  It also obscured the damages incurred by other areas of the city and country. Estimates of property damage were easier to assess than the number of deaths. Information was heavily censored in Romania at the time, thus exact figures are difficult to calculate. The best estimates show over 500 deaths and 1,500 casualties, though both totals may be much higher. Reports from provincial cities and rural villages were incomplete at best. Bessarabia was under Soviet control, which meant the flow of information was even more restricted than in Romania. It is hard to imagine that only 72 lives were lost in Chisinau when 2,765 buildings were damaged. The human, architectural and economic tolls were all immense.

Ruin From Within & Without – Into The Cauldron
Neither Bessarabia nor Romania could afford such a calamitous event. The former was suffering under the iron grip of Stalinism, thousands had already disappeared in the night, now hundreds disappeared amid the rubble. As for Romania, it was on a near wartime footing. In 1940, it suffered the forcible annexation of both Bukovina and Bessarabia at the hands of the Soviet Union. That was followed by the loss of northern Transylvania to Hungary. The 1940 Vrancea Earthquake only added to these woes. The nation was on the verge of ruin from within and without. Soon the nation would be swept up into the cauldron of World War II. Romania was a land that had been shaken to its core.

Click here for: From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

Bells rang out across a wide swath of Eastern Europe. This was no cause for celebration, instead it signified the beginning of a tragedy. Across the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia bells tolled. Further to the north, in the Austrian imperial city of Lemberg church bells began to ring for no apparent reason. The same was true in Kiev. The effect of what was happening could be felt as far away as Warsaw, Moscow and St. Petersburg. A movement was afoot, not one caused by the might of armies, the will of kings or great masses of the peasantry. Instead, this movement came from something much deeper. At its core, the movement caused churches to buckle, palaces to collapse and the uprooting of statues. It made both rich and poor homeless in a matter of minutes. The movement would be one of the most powerful to ever jolt Europe. It emanated outward from deep within the obscure Vrancea Mountains what was known at the time as Moldavia and today is part of Romania.

This movement was a massive earthquake, the likes of which had never been felt before in an area that had long been known as one of the shakiest in Europe. Estimates would later be made that this earthquake measured a 7.9 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the most powerful in European history. Though the earthquake inflicted tremendous physical destruction, it killed only a handful of people. Perhaps that is why today, hardly anyone remembers what happened in Bucharest on Tuesday, October 26, 1802. The event is little more than a footnote in a handful of history books. Yet for the city of Bucharest, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia as well as those who lived through it, the day was unforgettable.

Ready To Be Toppled - The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

Ready To Be Toppled – The Coltea Tower prior to the Vrancea Earthquake of 1802

A City In Ruin  – Damaged Goods
In 1802 Bucharest bore little resemblance to the city that would eventually come to dominate Romania’s political, economic and cultural life. It had a population of approximately 35,000. The city was part of Wallachia, which was administered under the Phanariote system. Though part of the Ottoman Empire, it was given a wide degree of autonomy under Phanariote rulers. This ruling class came from Greeks who were from Constantinople. The empire appointed them to rule over their Orthodox subjects. In 1802, a new Phanariote ruler, Constantine Ypsilanti, had just taken the helm as Hospodar (Lord) of Wallachia. His rule was about to take a turn for the worst due to a natural event beyond his or anyone else’s control. Major events such as earthquakes were viewed by many as ominous portents of worse things to come. Historical sources state that the earthquake struck at midday.  At 12:55 local time the ground began to shake violently. One of the worst earthquakes in history was underway.

The earthquake lasted for ten minutes, an incredible amount of time by the standards of such tremors. This was no ordinary earthquake. Such massive force coupled with how long it occurred led to widespread destruction throughout the city. Even the sturdiest structures were no match for nature’s fury. At that time, the tallest structure in Bucharest was the Coltea Tower. This was Bucharest’s most notable landmark, used both as a bell tower and fire watch. The earthquake proved much too strong for the upper part of the tower which soon collapsed. Its 1,700 kilogram bell tumbled into the rubble. Only the tower’s lower half managed to withstand the initial force. Meanwhile, other structures in the city suffered grave damage. A skyline that had been filled with steeples was suddenly marked by plumes of dust. Churches, monasteries, stately dwellings and humble abodes were all left in ruins. The same was true in the countryside. Damage was widespread throughout Moldavia and even reached into eastern Transylvania.

The Mighty Have Fallen - The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake

The Mighty Have Fallen – The Coltea Tower after the 1802 earthquake (Credit: Charles Doussault)

Fate & Destiny – From Rubble To Reconstruction
One of the more astonishing aspects of the 1802 earthquake is the low number of deaths that were reported. The official toll given is only four, which seems scarcely believable. Obviously, records from that time are sketchy, which likely led to a lower total of deaths than the actual number. On the other hand, Bucharest, where the majority of reports concerning destruction originated from would have had plenty of literate eyewitnesses attesting to fatalities. Historians and scientists have theorized on why so few lives were lost. The answer comes down to population density, specifically the lack thereof. The buildings of early 19th century Bucharest were not densely packed together the way they are today. When one building collapsed it did not produce a domino effect that might damage or cause other structures to in turn collapse. In addition, most buildings were made of timber, which was much less dangerous to health and safety.

Bucharest’s inhabitants may have survived relatively unscathed, but the same could not be said for the city’s physical infrastructure. The earthquake left it a vast ruin. This did not bode well for the newly installed Hospodar of Wallachia, Ypsilantis. Fate could hardly have conjured a more inauspicious beginning to his rule. Amid this crisis, Ypsilantis took it upon himself to energize the rebuilding of Bucharest. He first combatted looting by enhancing security in what was left of the city. Rules were then put into place whereby contractors could not overcharge for their services. Wage limits were set and work was regulated. These measures allowed the city to be largely rebuilt in just a few years.

The Reconstructor - Constantine Ypsilantis

The Reconstructer – Constantine Ypsilantis (Credit: Marinos Bretos)

A State Of Instability – Shattering Truths
Ypsilantis’ rule only lasted until 1806 when he was deposed. His visionary leadership led to the successful rebuilding of what would become Romania’s greatest city, but he would not be there to see its growth. In exile, he lived under the protection of Russia’s tsar while supervising a military barracks in Kiev. In 1819 he died far away from the city he helped recreate. By that time, the 1802 earthquake had already begun to fade from memory. It would not be long though, before nature reinserted itself into the fears of another generation. Bucharest was to be constantly reminded of just how unstable a place it held in the natural world.

Click here for: Shaken To its Core – 1940 Vrancea Earthquake: Bessarabia, Bucharest & The Mightiest Of Blows (Part Three)

Terrifying Tremors In Eastern Europe – Seismic Effects: Earthquakes In Hungary & Romania (Part One)

Anytime there is a hurricane, tornado or blizzard in the United States, my Hungarian wife never fails to remind me of the genteel climate in her homeland and the greater region surrounding it. In her eyes, the United States is a land of climatic extremes, with life threatening weather and natural disasters an all too common occurrence. I often remind her that before the Danube and Tisza Rivers were tamed both were prone to catastrophic flooding. Budapest in 1838 and Szeged in 1879 sustained horrendous damage from unprecedented inundations. As for tornadoes, I have never seen or heard of one in Hungary or Eastern Europe. And since winter is not what it used to be in the region, blizzards have become a rare occurrence. Thus, I must admit that there is a great amount of truth in her opinion. The United States is buffeted on an annual basis by a variety of catastrophic weather. Nonetheless, Eastern Europe is not exactly blessed with peaceful and serene nature either. Natural disasters have been known to strike there, in some countries more than others.

When I think of earthquakes my mind usually gravitates towards those places that always seem to make the news. These include the San Andreas Fault in California, in addition to the highly unstable Pacific Rim where Japan and Indonesia suffer deadly earthquakes on a recurring basis. One place I have never really thought of is Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary. It is worth mentioning that prior to my first trip there in 2011, I was surprised to hear that things had gotten a bit shaky. A 4.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Budapest region causing some minor cracks in a few buildings. Besides shaking up the locals, the earthquake was pretty much forgettable. The truth is that most earthquakes in Hungary are unlikely to make many seismic waves. The most powerful one to ever strike the country happened all the way back in 1763 at Komarom in northern Hungary. The 6.5 temblor damaged many of the city’s buildings and caused some casualties. Yet, by the standards of earthquakes, it was relatively modest in size and scale.  Furthermore, this earthquake was not a precursor of greater tremors to come. Contrast the earthquake situation in Hungary with that of its eastern neighbor, Romania. Only then, does a totally different situation emerge.

Seismic hazard map of Romania

Seismic hazard map of Romania (Credit: US Geological Survey)

On Shaky Ground – All That It Is Cracked Up To Be
During the 20th century, Romania suffered from a litany of woes. two World Wars, interethnic strife, corruption on a colossal scale and the depraved dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. The last thing the country needed during this time was any kind of natural disaster. On more than one occasion, that is exactly what they got. Romania may not be a widely known seismic hotspot, but it has one of the most seismically active areas in the world, known as the Vrancea zone which is centered in mountains to the north of Bucharest. Unfortunately, that zone includes Bucharest, the nation’s most populated city and Romania’s capital. Five times during the 20th century, earthquakes measuring 7.0 or greater on the Richter Scale took place in Romania. All but one of these occurred in the Vrancea zone.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted with any amount of precision, but future ones are almost certain to occur in places where they have struck numerous times before. By such extrapolation, it is almost a certainty that Romanians living anywhere around or near the Vrancea zone will experience many more earthquakes. It is not just the incidence of earthquakes in the zone which makes them worrisome, but also their overwhelming power. Between 1802 and 1986 there were no less than eight earthquakes emanating from the zone that measured 7.0 or greater on the Richer Scale. That is an average of one massively destructive earthquake every 23 years. Now consider the following, there has been no earthquake approaching this standard since 1986. That was 32 years ago. By the law of averages, Romania is overdue for another one any day.

Red Alerts – Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst
While there are several cities located close to the Vrancea Zone, none is as large or as important as Bucharest. Judging by past experiences, the next big earthquake is likely to cause outsized damage in the capital. Because of this threat, many risk management experts have deemed Bucharest the most dangerous European capital to live in. Ominous signs of potential calamity can be found all over the city center if a keen-eyed observer knows what to look for. Many of the old, grandiloquent late 19th and early 20th century apartment blocks have red circles attached to them. These plaques are part of a program that was instituted by city authorities in the 1990’s to identify buildings which were at risk of collapse if an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or greater were to hit the city again.

Rents in these structurally deficient buildings are a good deal cheaper than elsewhere in the city center. With property prices in the area soaring, many renters have thrown caution to the wind and hope their luck holds. The odds are against them. As part of the identification program, zero interest loans were offered to residents of these buildings. The hope was that they would take it upon themselves to fix structural weaknesses. Few have taken up the offer. Major repairs still need to be made, but most likely that will never happen. The biggest effect of the red placard program was that it ended up reducing rent in many decrepit buildings and their value as well. Residents have roundly rejected the program and very few buildings have been labeled with the warning signs over the past two decades.

Structural Faults – Life In The Vrancea Zone
Of the 400 buildings that were identified as in danger of collapse, most of these were severely weakened by the 1977 and 1986 earthquakes which killed and injured thousands while causing billions of dollars in damages. Hundreds of thousands still have living memories of these catastrophes. Nonetheless, few have the time, inclination or resources to take the steps necessary to shore up their building’s structural faults. Bucharest’s citizens hope the day of reckoning never arrives though many of them know better. The next big earthquake is just a moment, a day or decade away. Such is life in the Vrancea Zone.

Click here for: The Bells That Tolled – The 1802 Vrancea Earthquake: Bucharest Buckles Under (Part Two)

A Pale Postwar Representation Of The Past – Constanta Casino: Of Spite & Shadow (Part Four)

During the Belle Epoque (Golden Age) of pre-World War I Romania many people would have died for the chance to spend an evening socializing with the wealthy elites who haunted the gilded halls, resplendent ballrooms and high stakes gambling tables of the Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). The crème de la crème of the nation’s aristocracy loved and laughed with little thought for the future during this era. They had no idea just how much two World Wars would change Romania. To understand just how radical the transformation, look no further than the Casino after the communists took power in 1948. Over the next few years, people were no longer dying to come into the casino, instead they were at risk of being worked to death in the vacant and half-ruined postwar edifice.

An anti-gambling law had destroyed the casino’s main stream of revenue. The work to transform this once ornate structure into a House Of Culture was being done by men who in the past would have led the country. The elites and politicos of a former age were marked men, transformed into political prisoners and slave labor forced to work on reconstruction projects. The Casino, which for years had played host to many amazing events and evenings, had now sunk down into the depths of its darkest hour.

A Pale Representation - Constanta's House of Casino Culture

A Pale Representation – Constanta’s House of Casino Culture (Credit: Dan Carp)

The House Of Culture – A Communist Style Casino
By the end of World War II, the Constanta Casino was a mere shell of its former self. The Casino had suffered grave damage due to wartime air raids. Though it was still standing, the interior had been largely ruined, a pale representation of this once fantastical seaside set piece. The communists may have destroyed the Casino’s economic livelihood by banning gambling, but they saw an opportunity to use the building for propaganda purposes. This was the genesis of its transformation into a House of Culture. The idea was communist co-option at its finest. They could take the Casino, give it a new name and superficial overhaul, then claim it as their own. The revamp would not be done by skilled artisans, that was much too sensible an idea. Instead, those that had been deemed the dregs of society were commandeered into service.

A bit further north and west of Constanta, thousands of political prisoners were laboring on construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal. These prisoners were former aristocrats, capitalists, fascists and other so called enemies of the state. The communists picked one hundred men from these prisoners to work on repairing and renovating the Casino. While work on the Canal was done under the most brutal of conditions, those selected for work on the Casino would not be that much better off. They were forced to work from before sunup to after sundown. Living conditions were deplorable. They were underfed, ill-treated and housed in one of the few Casino rooms that lacked windows. The casino was in very poor condition and the prisoners in no better shape. A building that in an earlier age acted as portal to a world of beauty, was now a prison of shadow and spite. Eventually the repairs ended, the prisoners were taken away and the House of Culture was quasi complete. It did not last long. By the mid-1950’s, preservationists were working to get the building protected as a national heritage monument. Whether it was termed the Casino or House of Culture hardly mattered, better just to call it history.

Indefinite Closure - Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino

Indefinite Closure – Stained glass doors at Constanta Casino (Credit: Madavlasie)

Coming Full Circle – Less Than Ideal Conditions
The building slowly regained some of its former splendor under communism, which was ironic considering that it had once symbolized the excesses of aristocrats and wealthy elites. The communist-era Casino played host to a handful of dignitaries, while being frequented by the masses who could now watch movies inside and enjoy a bite to eat. Beginning in 1960, up through the collapse of communism, the Casino was run by Romania’s Central Tourism Authority as a tourist attraction. Instead of gambling revenues, it was now state subsidies that kept the building open. This would not prove viable in the long run. From a financial standpoint, the Casino was ultra-expensive to maintain. Keeping the building up to its golden age standard was next to impossible. On the other hand, it was still a marvelous structure, worthy of great admiration even in less than ideal condition. At least one attempt was made to improve the interior during the later years of Communist rule, unfortunately it occurred at the worst possible time.

During the 1980’s, with the Romanian economy headed toward a full-blown crisis and dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu descending into the depths of megalomania, the tourist authorities decided that the building needed a major renovation. Never mind that a nation having trouble feeding its own population, while resorting to such “cost saving” measures as turning off heat during the winter could ill afford the slightest extravagance. Nonetheless, renovations were soon underway. In an odd twist, the gilt and refinement of the Belle Epoque made something of a comeback within the Casino while most of Romania wasted away. Stained glass windows, new flooring, wall panels and ornate light fixtures were installed. It turned out to be both too little, too late and not nearly enough. A nation with so few economic and material resources could ill afford this kind of esoteric excess. Communism imploded at the end of 1989 leaving government departments in dire straits. This situation led to the national tourist authorities handing the casino back to the city of Constanta in 1990. The Casino’s ownership had come full circle back to where it began.

At Sunset - Constanta Casino

At Sunset – Constanta Casino (Credit: Dan Carp)

False Promises – A Series Of What Have Beens
The post-communist history of the Constanta Casino is depressing. It can be summed up as a series of what might have beens. Despite near continuous efforts on the part of both public and private entities, the Casino has remained vacant. Promises to restore, redevelop or reconstruct the interior and repair the exterior have turned out to be just that. The marvelous façade stands cracked and peeling, paint chips, glass shatters and the walls weaken. Guards keep the curious from getting a closer look. That is probably for the best. The only thing to see inside is one marvelously empty room after another. The Casino still stands for now, but the future is uncertain. Tragically, that is an improvement on its postwar past.

Pretentiously Complicated – Constanta Casino: Gambler’s Luck (Part Three)

To produce a work of art or architecture that becomes universally recognized as both outstanding and reviled involves a great deal of difficulty. To achieve such a degree of duality in an object of affectionate disaffection takes turmoil and tears, fantastical ability and preternatural passion on a level that defies belief. That was certainly true in the creation and construction of the third and final version of Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta). Nothing came easy from conception to completion. Obstacles were many and at times looked to be insurmountable. Political opposition from conservative politicians delayed construction for years. The French educated and inspired chief architect, Daniel Renard, was taken off the job and after a two-year hiatus reinstated. The foundations that were to hold the structure had to be laid no less than three times. Cost overruns were seven times the original budget and that did not include the immaculate amenities of decadent splendor which pervaded the interior.

When the grand opening occurred in 1910, the building was still a couple of years away from full completion. Because the Casino’s Art Nouveau style broke with traditional design and was scarcely influenced by Romanian architecture of that time, the finished product came in for exceptionally harsh criticism from both local and international observers. This was the culmination of seven years’ worth of fits, starts and a pseudo finish. Critics in the Constanta press referred to the Casino as a “hulking heap” and a “monstrosity”. One went so far as to say that it had been constructed “in honor of incompetence and bad taste.” Years later, the diplomat George Oudard, a Frenchman no less, called the building “pretentiously complicated.” It was a money pit to some, a spectacular success to others. Above all else, Constanta’s Casino was like all great architecture, instantly identifiable and uniquely memorable.

Golden Age Architecture - Constanta Casino

Golden Age Architecture – Constanta Casino (Credit: Sorin Golumbeanu)

A Reputation For Excess – Structural Albatross To City Symbol
Initial criticism of the Constanta Casino was directed at its ostentatious décor and budget busting cost. The palatial confines of this money pit of a palace would have made Crosesus proud. The interior was laden with marble, rooms were outfitted with shimmering chandeliers, it had more in common with a royal palace than a public venue. A spectacular staircase allowed visitors access between two floors. The ground level housed a ballroom, while an upper level led to an auditorium. There was also a sweeping balcony that overlooked the Black Sea. Costs were prohibitive, but no expense was spared. Part of the promenade around the casino had to be reclaimed from the encroaching seafront and built up to avoid inundation. Furniture was chosen that matched the casinos other furnishings of ornate splendor. An ultra-expensive piano was purchased to go with an 18-piece orchestra. By the time it was finished, the expense of constructing and outfitting the Casino set a new standard for gilded excess in Romania.

The Belle Epoque - Constanta Casino

The Belle Epoque – Constanta Casino (Credit: ZodiacsLion)

The Casino was the largest building in Romania at the time and had an outsized effect on Constanta’s reputation. This was just what many of the building’s most ardent promoters wanted. All this came at the expense of a city which three and a half decades earlier had been an Ottoman provincial backwater. With the casino as both glittering jewel and profligate eyesore Constanta played host to a procession of aristocrats and nouveau riche. This began a truncated Belle Epoque (Golden Age) era for the city, lasting six years before Romania joined the Allied side in World War I. Prior to Romania’s involvement in the war, the casino went from monstrosity to monument in the eyes of those who paid it a visit. Its location right along the coastline brought an air of glamour and glitz to the city. The rich and famous from all over Europe came in droves. Locals also became increasingly fond of it as tourism began to boom along the Black Sea.

In a matter of a few years the Casino went from being a structural albatross to city symbol. World War I would change everything. In Constanta’s case, it came a bit later than to the rest of Europe, but the ramifications for the city and its astonishing Casino were dire. In the summer of 1916, when the height of summer tourist season should have been taking place, Constanta was hunkered down preparing for an attack that almost certainly focus on the port.

The necessities of war - Constanta Casino as a hospital during World War I

The necessities of war – Constanta Casino as a hospital during World War I (Credit: ZodiacsLion – Template Newspaper Clipping)

Dawning Of Darkness – The Full Force of Conflict
The port facilities put Constanta in the crosshairs of enemy efforts. With the Casino nearby, it was impossible for adversaries to miss. The splendid structure made an inviting target. Some hoped it would be saved by its role as a makeshift Red Cross hospital where Romania’s war wounded attempted to convalesce as German forces closed in around the city. In late August, the reality of war came crashing into the casino. German shrapnel collapsed much of the roof and badly damaged the floor. To make matters worse, the wounded and their caregivers could not take cover in time. Ten lives were lost. It would be over a year before the Casino reopened and that would be but partially. The wounds of war took many years to repair. It would be over a decade before the Casino was back to its former, splendid self. In retrospect, the interwar years were a respite from conflict.

The casino was busy with those gambling their fortunes or lives away. More than a few met with sadness at one of the seventeen gambling tables. A few even flung themselves into the sea rather than face a future where their wealth had all but vanished. The Casino’s magnificence helped masked much of the trouble looming once again on the European horizon. It would not be long before German military forces were calling into Constanta’s port for what was to become an extended stay. The Germans found the casino much to their liking, so much that they housed many of their soldiers inside. And when the war turned against Germany, its Romanian ally felt the full force of conflict bearing down upon its largest port city. Even though Romania managed to change sides in 1944 and align with the Allies, the Casino could not escape a dire destiny that saw it bombed and parts left in ruin once again. All the Casino’s golden ages were now gone. A new era was dawning under Communism, one that would eventually lead the Casino down into further darkness.

Click here for: A Pale Postwar Representation Of The Past – Constanta Casino: Of Spite & Shadow (Part Four)

A Harbinger Of Creations To Come – Two Casinos In Constanta: Designs On The Future (Part Two)

There are two primary objects of touristic affection along the seafront promenade in Constanta, Romania. One of these is the Genoese Lighthouse which makes complete sense in its location looking out towards the Black Sea. The other, Constanta Casino, became a playground for local elites and wealthy visitors to eschew common sense at the gambling table. The latter ironically would come to be viewed as a symbol of the city. While the Lighthouse, a stone sentinel overlooking both promenade and sea, has an enchanting quality all its own. It was built in 1860 as a call back to the days when Genoese ships plied the Black Sea and were guided into port by a lighthouse that stood in the same area.

The lighthouse was among the last structures built during the waning days of Ottoman rule in Constanta, but the impetus for its construction was not Ottoman or Romanian. It was built at the behest of a British owned shipping company, to honor forebears of the shipping industry that had been and would continue to be an integral part of Constanta’s history. By the mid-19th century, Constanta was on the verge of major change. The lighthouse had been constructed at the end of one era and just before the beginning of another. Though highly symbolic, it would soon be usurped by the Casino which was a post-Ottoman phenomena.

A Fresh Light On The Waterfront - View of the Genoese Lighthouse & Constanta Casino

A Fresh Light On The Waterfront – View of the Genoese Lighthouse & Constanta Casino (Credit: ZodiacsLion)

Transforming Constanta – Casting A Light On The Future
By the time the Genoese Lighthouse was finished, a new future was approaching Constanta’s stretch of Black Sea shoreline, one that would soon arrive on the same stretch of seafront that the Lighthouse looked out upon. In 1880, the Ottoman presence in Constanta sailed away, never to return. The area was ceded to Romania along with the rest of Dobruja following the Russo-Turkish War and Romanian War of Independence. Almost immediately, the port and surrounding city began to be transformed. The new Constanta would boom with its port acting as a transit facility for Romania’s bountiful grain exports. The city would grow richer than ever before from this trade. The new Constanta would be immortalized in the Casino, which was located just 150 meters southwest of the lighthouse. It was the first structure built in Constanta after it became part of Romania.

The casino was a building altogether different from the Genoese Lighthouse. It was forward facing, not just looking out on the Black Sea, but also into the future. This new building represented wealth and refined decadence. It was a harbinger of an age that would weld aristocracy and money, tradition and capitalism together. This building was known as the Casino and its first version was one of three to come. Each proving to be a triumph in its own way. The stunningly grand and spectacularly worn exterior of the Constanta Casino that visitors see slowly deteriorating along the promenade today is nothing like the first version of the casino constructed upon what was a small undeveloped promontory in the late 19th century. Rather than the spectacle of stone which stands in its place today, the first casino was built out of wood.

On The Edge of The Black Sea - First Version of the Constanta Casino

On The Edge of The Black Sea – First Version of the Constanta Casino (Credit: ZodiacsLion)

High Stakes & High Brow – Fun Loving Fashionables
Known as the Cazin Kursaal (German for public hall) the initial version of the casino stood on a much more precarious spot, literally clinging to a slope which descended into the sea. The design featured twin terraces, overlapping with one another to provide views of both harbor and seafront. This was a favorite haunt of sightseers and sunbathers. The largest space within the interior was home to a ballroom where dances and theatrical performances were held. There were also a couple of rooms where gambling took place. The casino mixed high stakes with the high brow. Reading rooms offered visitors a window on the world as well as the sea. Both national and international press were available for the more intellectually minded. Unfortunately, the building’s precarious positioning also played a part in its destruction when in late 1891 a nasty storm tore the roof apart and caused irreparable damage to the exterior. The city decided that a wholesale repair was out of the question. In January 1892, this first version of the casino was demolished.

By this time, the casino had become something of a Constanta institution, thus it was decided to build a new version as quickly as possible. The second version of the casino was built on a more stable spot than the first, a location that would later be used by the structure which still stands there today. The second casino’s construction was completed rather quickly and opened to visitors in 1893. While this was a boon for the fun loving fashionables who frolicked in Constanta, the second version of the Casino, known as the Cazin, failed to be as aesthetically pleasing as the first. It only sported a single terrace out towards the sea. Though of more stout construction, it too was built of wood. While most casinos in Europe were built of more lasting materials such as stone and mortar which had staying power, Constanta’s was more down at the heel, a functional structure decidedly lacking in all the glittering amenities required by the elite of a fast modernizing port city. It was soon decided that an entirely new casino would be built, one befitting a city of its size and wealth.

The Creation to Come - Final Version of the Constanta Casino

The Creation to Come – Final Version of the Constanta Casino (Credit: Diego Delso)

An Inspired Choice – Controversial From The Start
The newest and what would become the final version of Constanta’s casino would be immortalized in stone. It was both built to last and catch the eye. The architect Daniel Renard had grand ideas and even grander designs as he set out to create an iconic example of Romanian Art Nouveau. Renard had been educated in Paris, as such he had been inspired by the French flair for design and was an inspired choice for chief architect. The city’s power brokers wanted a building that would evoke the casinos found along the French Rivera, for this was to be a symbol of wealth and prestige. Thus, non-lasting wooden materials were out, while stone, glass and grandeur were favored. The design was controversial from the start.

The Romanian liberals held power when Renard began his work. They loved the fact that Renard was pushing the limits with his design, but when conservatives took power two years later, they replaced Renard with an architect who planned a more traditionally styled structure. Then another change of government brought the Liberals back into power. Renard returned to favor, assuming his original post. He would now be able to finish his fantastically eclectic design which was soon to become the most glorious building in Romania.

Click here for: Pretentiously Complicated – Constanta Casino: Gambler’s Luck (Part Three)

Sublime Port – The Constanta Casino: Shadows That Still Glow On Romania’s Black Sea Coast (Part One)

Constanta is not the kind of place that foreign travelers are likely to hear a great deal about before embarking on a journey to Romania. The city, Romania’s fourth largest, often gets lost amid tourism publicity that markets the beauty of Transylvania, the wooden churches of Maramures, the painted monasteries in Bukovina and the cultural delights to be discovered in Bucharest. These are just some of the many places worth making a special trip to Romania for a visit. Constanta rarely features near the top of any list of Romania’s must-see attractions which is something of a shame. The city is not exactly on many tourist’s radar for two reasons.

Port of call - Aerial view of Constanta

Port of call – Aerial view of Constanta (Credit: NASA)

A Distant Shore – Harboring Commerce
The first is its location in the far southeastern part of Romania. It is a long haul to Constanta from most parts of Romania other than Bucharest. On a trip to the country this past summer, I recall seeing a sign giving the number of kilometers to Constanta on a motorway in Transylvania. The total was well over the five hundred mark. It was a reminder of Romania’s size and Constanta’s location. Even for many Romanians, Constanta is way out there on the fringes. Getting there has been made much easier by the A1 motorway from the western and central parts of the country connecting with the A2 in Bucharest. Nonetheless it is a full day’s drive from the western part of the country. Secondly, Constanta’s reputation as a port city does it few favors with foreigners even though there are some fantastic beaches nearby along its Black Sea coastline. Its role as a port city comes well before beaches or frolicking among the sun and sand in popular images of the city. This has a decided effect on those considering a visit, particularly foreigners.

Port cities do not have the greatest reputation in Europe as a whole. There is a reason that visitors prefer Nice over Marseilles in France, Amsterdam over Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Rome over Naples in Italy. The latter are often seen as gritty, down at the heel places focused largely on trade. Port cities and seediness are inextricably linked. The same could be about Constanta. Not only is it the largest port in Romania, it is also the third largest in Europe. Constanta’s livelihood is built on commerce centered around its port. Visiting a beach with port facilities close by is a less than enthralling prospect. No one wants to gaze down the strand at towering cranes. Add in the fact that Bulgaria, just a bit further to the south, has done a tremendous job marketing the beaches along its Black Sea coastline and Constanta’s tourist prospects seem to pale in comparison.

Just after sunrise - Constanta Casino

Just after sunrise – Constanta Casino (Credit: Djphazer)

Casting A Shadow, Casting A Glow  – Luminous Times
This does not mean there is little to see in Constanta, on the contrary the city has a range of eclectic sites, from the Grand Mosque to Genoese Lighthouse, that are fascinating markers of its diverse past. A promenade along the waterfront is a wonderful place for strolling. This area is home to the city’s most famous building, the Constanta Casino (Cazinoul din Constanta), which stands within a stone’s throw of the blue waters of the Black Sea. It is a building that can be easily seen, but not visited. A magnificent representation of early 20th century Romanian Art Nouveau architecture, the casino once played host to glitz, glamour and aristocracy. It now stands as a symbol of all that has been lost from an era when a singular structure gave Constanta’s social life a luminous glow. The casino may stand vacant today, but it is still an illuminating beacon casting light on a rapturously gilded past that played out along the city’s seaside promenade.

I had never thought much about Constanta or considered a visit, but that began to change because of the Casino. It might seem odd to contemplate a trip to such a far-flung locale because of one building, albeit an amazing one. A building that currently cannot be entered and as the more current news reports state, may fall further into disrepair until something, if anything, is done to stabilize, repair and develop it. And if I did manage to visit the Casino it would have to be as an outsider, hoping to get a fleeting glimpse from the outside. Access to the interior is strictly guarded, as much in the spirit of indifference as for the interests of visitor safety. From pictures I have seen, the casino’s interior is filled with atmospheric rooms, the crumbling masterwork of anonymous craftsmen. A spectral lavishness evocative of vanished elegance. That all sounds either incredibly romantic or overwhelmingly melancholic.

A visit to the interior might be impossible, but that is for very good reason. It holds less than desirable discoveries. These would almost certainly include rancid passageways and cobwebbed corners covered in pigeon poop. Despite such drawbacks I still long to travel there. Visiting the casino would be well worth it if for no other reason than to satisfy a long-held desire to stand in the footsteps of Romanian and Russian royalty, not in a general sense, but a much more specific one. This is due to a story that I read long ago in a travel guide about an evening in the Casino that involved the two nation’s most exalted aristocratic families. Rather than a tale of aristocratic refinement and the niceties of court protocol, manners were eschewed for mayhem. The outline of this tale gripped my imagination and worked its way into my memory. Just what happened one evening at the casino in 1914 when elegance devolved into violence and recrimination has been back on my mind lately.

On the edge of a deep Black Sea - Constanta Casino

On the edge of a deep Black Sea – Constanta Casino (Credit: Miharomeob)

Storied History – Memory Makers & Markers
The outline of the story goes something like this. The Russian Royal family traveled to Constanta on a diplomatic trip. One of the main reasons for this journey was to see whether Grand Duchess Olga, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexander might make a good match with Prince Carol, heir to the Romanian royal throne. It turned out that the two could not stand each other and neither could many other people at the Casino who attended a gala for the royals. The event descended into recriminations, fisticuffs, vandalism and riotous conditions. The upshot was that the Russian royal family sailed away the morning after these unforeseen “festivities” took place. Tsar Nicholas and his family had no way of realizing that this would be the last trip they would ever make abroad. Their future would be one of war and revolution. The Constanta Casino stands as a memory marker for that trip, a way of life that will never exist again and many more lost stories that are hidden within the casino’s crumbling walls.

Click here for: A Harbinger Of Creations To Come – Two Casinos In Constanta: Designs On The Future (Part Two)

All The Places I Will Never Go – Eastern Limits: The Unattainable Spiritual Sites Of Romania

Romania makes me feel incredibly sad. This is not because of its tumultuous politics, the post-communist corruption which still plagues the country or the fact that so many of its best and brightest flee their remarkably beautiful homeland for better opportunities elsewhere in Europe. These are all reasons to feel sad about Romania, but they have nothing to do with my own very personal reason. Romania makes me feel sad for a quite simple and selfish reason, I will never get to see all of it. I only became aware of this while reading a travel article on the English language website Romania Insider entitled, “Venerable sites: Places of worship to see in Romania”. As usual, the article was filled with incredible photos and informative text, but while reading it a strange sensation came over me. That was because the article managed to make me aware of the limits to my travels. The phrase, “all the things I should have done” suddenly popped into my mind. Then I began to rework that phrase to encapsulate how I really felt. That is when I came up with “all the places I will never go.”

Spiritual Folk - Barsana Church in Maramures

Spiritual Folk – Barsana Church in Maramures (Credit: Pylaryx)

The Last Joyride – One Final Far-Flung Fling
It has been twenty years since I began traveling in remote and relatively unknown lands. This started with trips stateside to such places as North Dakota, every county in Montana and the Prairie Provinces of Canada, among other locales that few would ever care to see. Somewhere along the way I grew more adventurous, or perhaps desperate, to see the world. This led me into Eastern Europe, first Bulgaria, then Romania, followed by twelve other countries in the region. Amid these wanderings, I conceptualized an end game to these travels, a final, haggard hurrah years in the distance. This would happen when I was finally worn out from my wanderings. Then I would take what would be called, “The Last Joyride.” This would consist of a far-flung trip where I would get the urge to travel out of my system by exhausting myself once and for all time. Leaving me with neither the energy or will to ever travel again. I imagined this would happen sooner rather than later.

The last joyride has never happened, at least up to this point. That is because the more I discover, the more I realize how much is undiscovered. For example, when people tell me I have been everywhere in Eastern Europe, I immediately become aware of the fact that the opposite is true. I have only been to a handful of places when compared to the size of the region. The difference between myself and those who laud me is that they have hardly been anywhere. Thus, they have no idea how little of the region I have seen and experienced. I realized once gain how little I had seen after reading “Venerable sites.” The article covered thirteen of the best religious sites that can still be visited in present-day Romania. These sites include everything from fortified to wooden churches, mosques and painted monasteries. The range of history covered by them could was matched by the aesthetic significance of their art and architecture.

Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Timisoara

From here to eternity – Interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Timisoara (Credit: Adrian Padrurariu)

Sublime Depressants – A Church Too Far
The article started off with the Voronet Monastery in Bukovina, a place and land in northern Romania that I have yet to visit. I found the description of Voronet’s blue frescoes enthralling. That was until I got to the end of the informative text blurb describing it. I then read a list of seven more UNESCO listed churches in the area. Rather than inspiring, I found this depressing. I was unlikely to ever visit one or two of these, let alone all seven. The same thing happened with the Barsana Church in Maramures, a region of Romania known for its pastoral settings and folk customs. I have visited only once, for a limited amount of time. Barsana Church’s beautiful murals looked magical, but there were another seven UNESCO listed wooden churches to visit as well. The sheer number coupled with the amount of time it would take to visit each one seemed overwhelming. I could moderate my ambitions and be less of a completionist, but that would be the antithesis of my travel philosophy.

The more of the article I read, the more depressed I got. Next was Curtea De Arges Church, a must see that I probably never will see with my own eyes. If I do visit, it will come at the expense of many other churches. I felt a bit of relief when the Biertani Fortified Church and the Black Church in Brasov were featured, since I have been able to visit these astonishing Saxon spiritual creations. I could say the same about the Stavropoleos Church where I listened to the sublime voices of a choir in full throated vocal glory on a spring evening there in Bucharest seven years ago. There were Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Metropolitan Cathedrals, all worth a visit. While the distance between three of the four cathedral’s location – Oradea, Timisoara and Alba Iulia – was quite manageable, traveling to Iasi way up in the northeastern part of Romania would take a trip unto itself. The same could be said for the Grand Mosque in Constanta. I have always wanted to visit this Black Sea port. That would be problematic, with everything else on this agenda.

Beyond limits - Curtea De Arges Monastery

Beyond limits – Curtea De Arges Monastery (Credit: Alexandru Bobos)

Proving Myself Wrong – To A Place Of Exhaustion
Outliers are always the most difficult destinations to reach. In this case, made more difficult by the fact that Romania is a rather large country by the standards of Eastern Europe. Getting around the country may be easier than ever, but it is still quite difficult by European standards. Of course, if I really wanted to take such a trip to visit all the churches, in addition to assorted honorable mentions, it could probably be done in an exhausting two-week journey. The “The Last Joy Ride” was possible, but not probable. Such a journey would take someone on the outer edge of sanity. This was the traveler I used to be, rather than the one I had become. “The Last Joy Ride” was stalled out somewhere in my mind. Understanding this was like waking from a dream and realizing my travel life had its limits. Then again, maybe I will live a long and energetic enough life to prove myself wrong.

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

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

A Way of Life - Dej Synagogue

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

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

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

Virtual Slavery - Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Virtual Slavery – Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

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

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

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

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

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

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