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)

The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took a decided turn towards the east once it crossed into Romania. This was where western Christianity gave way to eastern Orthodoxy. It was a land with deep historical connection to the west going all the way back to when the Romans conquered and colonized what then known as Dacia in the early 2nd century AD. By the latter part of the 19th century Romania was viewed as a dark and mysterious hinterland of Europe. Some called it part of the Balkans, others said it was just an appendage. The people spoke a Romance language akin to Italian and French, but they were ruled by a German who had been forced on them by the Great Powers. Romania was an odd country, surrounded by Bulgars, Slavs and Magyars, it did not fit in with any of its neighbors any more than the Magyars did with theirs. It did have the saving grace of a language which looked and sounded intelligible. As the furthest eastern outpost of Latin Europe, Romania was strangely familiar and totally foreign all at once.

At the Iron Gate

At the Iron Gate (Credit: Lazlo Mednyanszky)

Passing Through – Porta Orientalis
The Express would cross the border just beyond Orsova, a town whose history over the prior three centuries had been a proving ground for various empires. It had been the plaything of Ottomans, Habsburgs and Hungarians, with a fate formulated in treaties decided far from it in places with such scintillating names as Passarowitz and Sistova. A border town that was always on the wrong side of something, Orsova in 1883 was squeezed between Austria-Hungary and Romania. Considering the numerous times that it had been passed back and forth by interlopers, the town’s current geopolitical situation likely meant little to its inhabitants who somehow managed to outlast invaders. The newest one was not Turkish or Tatar, but technological. The Orient Express had much in common with all its former conquerors, in that it was also just passing through.

The final stopping point to be crossed on the Austro-Hungarian frontier was appropriately named Porta Orientalis. The passengers on board the Express had little idea what lay beyond. The moment of crossing into Romania must have been as fascinating as it was historic. The Express had brought them to this stretch of frontier by way of a valley with low, thickly forested mountains on either side. It was a strangely beautiful preparation to enter the great beyond. It was here that the Orient Express had finally arrived in the Orient. No one onboard knew what was in store for them. Twilight would soon descend upon the Express, as it in turn descended upon the Iron Gates. The passengers were allowed a fleeting glimpse of this natural wonder just before sunset.

Peles Castle in autumn

Peles Castle in autumn (Credit: TiberiuSahlean)

Through The Iron Gates – Above & Beyond Bucharest
The Iron Gates, an evocative and forbidding term of description, was where the Danube took revenge upon those foolish enough to test its tempestuous waters and surrounding boulder strewn landscape. Skirting this chasm of wildness was an undertaking that frayed even the steeliest of nerves. Making this transit was best done after dark. That way the passengers would not see the frightening aspect of a terrifying fate flashing before their eyes. It was here that nature raged at its wildest. Eddies, whirlpools and boulders threatened to swallow or impede the unwary. Fortunately, the Express’ locomotive driver proceeded with caution, slowing the pace of travel to a crawl. In this fairy tale dreamscape, full of menacing beauty, one side was bordered by the southern edge of the Carpathians, the other by the beginning of the Balkan Mountains.

The Express, like the river, slithered through the Iron Gates. A couple of hours before dawn, the Orient Express entered Bucharest where it was met by representatives of the Romanian State Railways. No state officials or royalty was there to meet its arrival. This unceremonious welcome obscured what was to come. The passengers were slated to meet King Carol and Queen Elisabeth (who preferred to be called her literary name of Carmen Sylva), but not in Bucharest. Instead the meeting was to take place 120 kilometers to the north amid the magnificent Bucegi Mountains, at the newly constructed Peles Castle.

The Orient Express was shunted onto a sidetrack, then began to steam northward. It traveled through an incredibly diverse array of landscapes in a comparatively short amount of time. After leaving the cityscape of Bucharest it entered rolling farmland. This was followed by the growing city of Ploesti, its surroundings pockmarked with wooden derricks from one of the world’s largest oil fields. Then there was a climb into ever deepening forest along the Prahova River valley, before the Express pulled into the small station at Sinaia. The King and Queen were not at the station or anywhere in the town at that time. They were sequestered high above in their palace. No one knew what the plan was for meeting them. In the meantime, the passengers enjoyed a large lunch on the veranda of the just completed Grand Hotel Noles. Finally, an officer of the palace guard showed up to tell everyone that the royal couple would receive the passengers at the palace.

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Talentless Amateurs – Meeting The Royals
There were no carriages for transport to the palace, thus the passengers were forced to make their way up a muddy road. They were soon inundated by a torrential downpour. One journalist who made the trek stated that the road to the palace was better for mountain goats than people. By the time they arrived, the passengers were muddy and drenched. The palace was an architectural atrocity of grotesque faux grandeur. It had taken separate efforts by an Austrian, a German and finally a Czech architect to achieve such a state of dissymmetry. While its considerable cost had exacerbated the already dire state of Romania’s finances. In the Hall of Honor, the royal couple (both minor German nobles imposed upon Romania) who could barely stand to be around one another, greeted the passengers. The King and Queen were dressed in ridiculous outfits. The former in a general’s dress uniform, while the latter was in a flowing Romanian costume which served to accentuate her expanding waistline.

Personality wise they were no better than their dress. The King was his usual aloof self, only interested in forestry and botany. He was bored by the entire ceremony. Meanwhile, the queen who styled herself a literary genius, recited reams of inane verse to the French journalist Edmond About, who she desperately wanted to impress. The passengers were shunted through several despicably ornate rooms. At one point they were confronted by King Carol’s art collection which was nothing more than a series of works by the Old Masters reproduced by the hands of talentless amateurs. When this depressing visit had run its course, the passengers were escorted out the wrong way, mistaken for laborers and treated with rudeness. It would not be until ten in the evening before the train arrived back in Bucharest. Thus, went the horrifically memorable visit of the Express’ first passengers to an Oriental leader. It had been a day of decadence and decided lack of taste.

Click here for: The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism (Part One)

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

Guilt Trip – Last Remains: At The Grave Of Ceausescu (Travels In Eastern Europe #20)

Nicolae Ceausescu had everything his way in Romania for the last twenty-five years of his life. In the twenty-five years since his death it has been a much different story. Ceausescu was not buried in any great mausoleum. That is hardly surprising since he and his wife Elena were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. Instead he was given, what for him, would be considered a pauper’s grave, away from the center of Bucharest. It was to the grave of Ceausescu that I found myself traveling to on my final day in Bucharest. My travel companion Tim, who was fascinated by all things Ceausescu, had piqued my interest in going to the site. He wanted to see the final resting place of Romania’s most infamous modern leader. This seemed like it would be a fitting finale for our visit to Ceausescu-era Bucharest sites.

Former grave of Nicolae Ceaucescu

Former grave of Nicolae Ceausescu (Credit Biruitorul)

A Funereal Finale  – In Search Of Ceaucescu
First we had visited Ceausescu’s infamous monstrosity of grandiosity, the Palace of the Parliament. This had been followed by a stroll down Bulevardul Unirii, a four kilometer long Ceausescu showpiece. He had made sure that it was just a little bit wider than the Champs Elysees in Paris, bigger was always better in Ceausescu’s mind. Then there were the ubiquitous tower apartment blocks that dotted Bucharest, a constant reminder of an urbanization policy run amuck. There was nothing quaint or refined about Ceausescu. Everything had been done on an inhuman scale that dwarfed the individual. There was only room for one man in Romania while he was alive and that was him. I thought it would be interesting to see how Ceaucescu was memorialized at a place where he had not been able to create the context.

Ghencea cemetery, which holds the graves of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, is located about an hour’s walk southwest of the city center in Bucharest. We decided to take the bus instead. I expected the Bucharest city buses to be down at the heel, lacking in comfort, communism in a moving can. When the bus arrived I was pleasantly surprised, it was almost brand new. It even had computer screens in it that listed out each of the coming stops along Bulevardul Ghencea. The seats were clean and comfortable with plenty of leg room. The short ride to the cemetery was pleasant and uneventful. We disembarked close to the entrance. Tim had printed off the exact location so we would have little trouble finding it. With Romania predominantly Greek Orthodox in religion, the cemetery was a mass of crosses. I felt as though I were standing amid a crowd of holiness. It was hard to believe that one of the most unholy people Romania had ever produced could have been buried amid all this Christian iconography.

The grave of Nicolae Ceaucescu today

The grave of Nicolae Ceausescu today

Infamy & Irony – Grave Misgivings
Ceausescu’s final resting place was ironic, a judgment of history. He was going to be surrounded in death by all that he had vilified in life. To add insult to injury, his grave would have been impossible to find without directions, lost amid all the other headstones. For a man who dedicated much of his life to the monumental, Ghencea Cemetery was much to understated, the antithesis of his megalomania.

It did not take us long to find Ceausescu’s grave. Tim had read online that photos of it were discouraged. His information said there were people on-site who made sure tourists did not snap pictures. We tried to make ourselves inconspicuous, but two Americans, one with red hair and the other of Asian descent do not look very Romanian.  The headstone and base of the grave was of polished red granite. The name Nicolae Ceausescu was inscribed upon the stone. It did not look much different than other headstones I had seen before.  There were a few jars with flowers and a small pot holding a yellow plant. I wondered who might have left these, but it was really not that surprising.

Every dictator has his fans and friends, people who glorify the past when the future dries up. Close by, but not beside Nicolae’s grave, was that of his wife Elena. They had been gunned down standing side by side, in death they were apart, but still in close proximity to one another, as they had always been in life. Getting a photo looked like it might be a bit difficult. There were a couple of men standing close to the grave. It was hard to know whether or not they were guarding them, but if they were it was in a very languid manner. On the other hand, this was a public cemetery, what was there to really worry about. Perhaps the legacy of Ceausescu’s secretive state watching everything and everyone was casting its dark spell over us, a quarter of a century after his death. I finally got myself in a position to take a photo. The men standing nearby hardly noticed or if they did, hardly cared. We walked around the cemetery for a few more minutes, then left. That was the end of our search for Ceaucescu sites in Bucharest.

Graves at Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest

Graves at Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest (Credit: Biruitorul)

The Final Fall from Power – Surrounded…Forever
Our visit to the cemetery had been revealing, the grave was quite unimpressive. The closest counterpart and a major influence on Ceausescu’s thinking had been the dictator, Kim Il Sung of North Korea. Sung is now deified in the Kumusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang. The palace had once been Il Sung’s private residence. It reportedly cost $100 million to convert it into a mausoleum. Il Sung’s body lies in a clear glass sarcophagus. It is not hard to imagine Ceausescu’s remains in such a tomb if not for his fall from power. That makes his grave site all the more startling. The dictator who held power over his nation for decades on end was finally humbled. He now lies surrounded by the tradition and orthodoxy of religion that his atheistic state radically opposed. His attempt to refashion Romania into a vanguard of communism failed. All that Ceausescu stood for has been resigned to the proverbial dust bin of history. And all that he stood against now surrounds him…forever.

The Free Tour – An Ambassador For Bucharest: The Heart of Romania’s Revolution (Travels In Eastern Europe #19)

Hardly anything in the world is free anymore. Everything and everyone seems to have a price. Capitalism has brought wealth and prosperity to the world. Conversely, it has also brought about the monetization of nearly every aspect of life. This is especially true when it comes to travel. Try to think about taking a trip without spending any money. It is almost impossible. For those looking to do European travel on the cheap, Eastern Europe has been the place to go for the last twenty-five years. It was never a region without money, though it certainly had less of it before the Iron Curtain fell. A nation such as Romania, which was beset by poverty when communism collapsed, may not be rich by European standards today, but capitalism has triumphed. The stores are filled with consumer goods and chain stores have penetrated all the cities. There is no going back to the days of centrally controlled economies or imposed five year plans. The impulse for greed is too great.

Our guide on the free tour of Bucharest

Our guide on the free tour of Bucharest

The Land With A Little Bit Of Everything – Including Free Of Charge
For travelers from the western world, places like Romania still offer great value. Food, drink, lodging and transport are available at bargain prices. A two week stay costs less than a week long visit almost anywhere in Western Europe. Call it a Romanian two for the price of one deal. The country needs such value based tourism to help boost economic growth. Fortunately, it is well endowed with attractions. Romania has a little bit of everything, a stretch of coastline along the Black Sea, soaring mountains in the myth laden land of Transylvania, castles crowning hilltops and an eclectic capital city. It was in the latter that I found myself with a traveling companion, Tim, who was on a multi-month journey across Europe.  He was the one who introduced me to an idea that I found fascinating, the Free Tour. Across many cities in Eastern Europe, local guides, often students, gave tours of their hometown taking visitors to places famous and obscure. In addition, visitors would meet and hang out with a local. There was no cost, except for a voluntary donation. It was a bit shocking that in a nation with the second lowest per capita income in the European Union such a free service was being offered.

The Free Tour was given rave reviews by Tim who had just recently been the only participant on a tour in Sarajevo. He got a unique perspective on that ill-fated city from a guide who had lived through much of the tumult. Tim had no idea what the Bucharest free tour might entail, but since there was no cost, I was more than glad to join him and give it a try. We were to meet our guide at 17:00, at the front of Parcul Unrii, in the heart of Bucharest. Sure enough at the appointed time a dark haired, bespectacled Romanian male greeted us with a warm smile. His name was Mihaii. He was a local student who led several of these tours each week. Tim and I were the only participants, which wasn’t really that surprising since it was early spring. The slate grey sky was threatening rain, but only a few random drops intermittently landed on us. After a brief introduction to the history of Bucharest and some information about the ominous Palace of the Parliament looming at the opposite end of Bulevardul Unirii, we began to walk down the streets and alleyways of old Bucharest.

Balcony where Nicolae Ceaucescu gave his final speech

Balcony where Nicolae Ceausescu gave his final speech

A Balcony In Bucharest – The Best Thing About Freedom
Mihaii was more than just a guide. He was also an informal ambassador of the city, part of a new generation that had grown up without the suspicion and narrow mindedness engendered by the Ceausescu regime. Mihaii’s generation was pro-European, western in outlook and had a cautious optimism that Romanian’s entry into the European Union would bring prosperity. Meeting someone like him was worth taking the tour. Thirty years before, the idea of a Romanian university student walking two Americans around the city center would have been enough to cause the immediate arrest of all involved. What we were doing would have been seen as revolutionary in the 1980’s, now it was a sign of freedom and openness. The tales he told us and the sites we saw while strolling through streets of old Bucharest was fascinating. Yet it was a site associated with the Revolutionary upheaval of 1989 that was the most extraordinary of all.

The tour ended where many say post-communist Romania began, in what is now known as Revolutionary Square. We were looking up at the balcony of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building, which was formerly the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Mihai told us about Nicolae Ceausescu’s final speech that took place there on December 21, 1989. After hundreds were killed in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, Ceausescu decided to use an annual speech to show that he still enjoyed popular support. With 80,000 people packed into the square he began to drone on with the usual glorified banalities. Much of the crowd had been bused in for the speech. Workers were told they would lose their jobs if they did not cheer, clap and wave placards. After a few minutes the crowd began to jeer and boo. Video of the speech shows a bewildered and increasingly nervous Ceausescu. He then tries to change tack by promising raises, but the incensed crowd grows unruly. The jeers rise to threatening levels, it is obvious that Ceausescu has lost support from the masses. It is an incredible scene, as he begins to comprehend the disaffection and hatred directed toward him. A security guard finally ushers Ceausescu away. Four days later, he and his wife were executed by firing squad.

The final madness - Nicolae Ceaucesacu giving his final speech in Bucharest

The final madness – Nicolae Ceausescu giving his final speech in Bucharest

A Free Tour Of Freedom – Revolutionary Consequences
Mihai had been born after the fall of Ceausescu, but knew the story well. He talked about the people who had been killed in the revolution for the hope that things would change. They did and they didn’t. When I remarked that the fall of Ceausescu was a great event for Romania. Mihai said yes it was, but he was only one person. Almost everyone else associated with Ceausescu, those who had spent decades enriching themselves and impoverishing the country were never prosecuted. Many ended up in other positions of power. Romania was still plagued by corruption and cronyism. Had things really changed? The ultimate answer was yes. How else could we be standing in Revolutionary Square listening to a man who was part of Romania’s newest and most hopeful generation give a free tour that was ultimately about freedom.

A Dictator’s Last Resort –Palace of the Parliament: Bucharest’s Monument To Megalomania (Travels In Eastern Europe #18)

I have never had any desire to visit North Korea, but staring up at the sheer massiveness of Romania’s Palace of the Parliament gave me an eerie sense that I was close to the heart of that hermit state. The building is a rough approximation of the inherent madness and outsized egoism that symbolizes dictatorial regimes at their most extreme degree. Something about this towering monument to megalomania gave me the feeling that I might as well have been in Pyongyang, rather than Bucharest. The difference was that I could snap a photo from where I stood without fear of being arrested.

I could have not done the same thing during the 1980’s, when the Palace was under construction. At that time Romania was in the iron grip of what might be called Ceausescuism, a cult of personality centered around the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and to a lesser extent his wife, Elena. The couple and their acolytes set out to reshape the Romanian capital in the image of Pyongyang, following a visit to the North Korean capital in 1978. Some say this visit was what finally sent Nicolae over the edge, tipping him into insanity. Pyongyang offered Ceausescu a grotesquely grandiose vision of the future that he could bend to his will. There is little doubt that the visit had an effect on him and an even greater effect on Bucharest which can still be seen today. How could it not be?

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

A Vision Of Madness – Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest (Credit: Alejandro Glacometti)

An Impenetrable Palace – More Than Meets The Eye
It would seem that the Palace of Parliament cannot be missed, even if you tried, but there really is more to the building than meets the eye. The structure stands 86 meters high, but it extends even deeper underground, burrowing another 92 meters into the rich Wallachian soil. Twelve stories can be seen, but there are at least another eight underground, maybe more, hidden from view. It has never been disclosed just how deep Ceausescu’s paranoia and suspicion demanded that construction workers dig, It is known that the depths house a nuclear bunker, a fearful dictator’s last resort. He was preparing the country for all eventualities, but it was really built only to save himself and his family. Standing outside the palace on a beautiful spring morning, I contemplated its size for some minutes. I was on a visit with my new friend Tim, who had convinced me after we first met in Bulgaria that this was the must see communist-era attraction in Eastern Europe.

It was interesting to go through security at the entrance. I really wondered what all the bother was about. The palace was built to survive almost anything. Our guide had the typical dark and handsome Latin features so prominent in many Romanians. He also had a flair for the dramatic when he spoke. He peppered his words with a special zest. It became obvious to me that the Romanians were passionate people. I felt as though I had discovered a rustic slice of Italy on the edge of the Balkans. Unfortunately his opening had little to do with the Palace, more a monologue about the ancient historical roots of the Romanian people in the land they called home. It felt odd hearing about the greatness of Romania and their connection to the Roman Empire in the halls of such an architectural atrocity as the Palace of Parliament.

Treasure house of a madman - The White Room

Treasure house of a madman – The White Room (Credit: Ognen Bojkovski)

The Anti-People’s Palace – Treasure House Of A Madman
If anything, Ceausescu wanted the Palace built in order to obliterate the past, a brave new world where nothing from the past is worth saving. It had done that quite well, bulldozing one-sixth of Bucharest and leading to the destruction of historic neighborhoods, churches and monasteries, all to be replaced by a mind blowing behemoth of unfathomable proportions. Tragically this also meant the uprooting of approximately 40,000 people, many of them with little warning. Even worse were the reported 3,000 lives lost during the construction. In a ghastly irony, the building was known for some time as The People’s House (Casa Poporului), a place “the people” could not or would not ever want to visit.

Our guide showed us what the people, rather than Ceausescu, had actually built. He took us through several different rooms, but anyone of them would have been quite enough. We saw a room that looked to be larger than a football pitch, with a rug that must have been woven by an army of peasants. It was setup to host a conference for what looked like an entire town. There were chandeliers galore (reputedly the building contains 3,500 tons of crystal within its walls), brocade and silk curtains, gold leaf decorative f and enough marble to exhaust a thousand quarries. The place was difficult to fathom. It has 1,100 rooms, only 400 of which are currently in use. Nearly every component or material used in its construction came from somewhere in Romania. No part of the country was spared the theft of its natural and cultural wealth, all to be held in the treasure house of a madman, who coincidentally got to see very little of it.

Madness in Marble - Staircase at Palace of the Parliament

Madness in Marble – Staircase at Palace of the Parliament

Decadent Designs – The Unfinished Palace
The Palace was still unfinished when the Ceausescus were executed after a show trial on Christmas Day in 1989. It never has been completed and probably never will be. One of the main reasons it took longer to build than originally planned had to do with the bizarre whims of Nicolae Ceausescu. The guide told us several revealing anecdotes about Ceausescu and the Palace. The most memorable of these concerned a marble staircase we walked up and down on the tour. The staircase had to be rebuilt three times because Ceausescu did not like the dimensions of each step. He wanted a step that fit perfectly under his foot, just like he wanted a nation he could keep under his heel. He got his wish, but before the job was completed on the palace or the nation, he and his wife were dead. His legacy was a nation in tatters, left with an unfinished monstrosity in the heart of Bucharest that has turned out to be just as hollow and empty as Ceausescu’s grand designs.



Welcome To Bucharest – Hand Over Fist: A Flower Seller & A Monument To Megalomania (Travels In Eastern Europe #17)

Following the “tres leu” taxi fiasco Tim and I were back to where we had started. We swore off Bucharest taxis because of the risk involved. Our issue at the moment was how to find our hotel with an address, almost zero directions and a very poor map. We stood on the sidewalk peering at our guidebook map for some time. From this map we could generally see where we needed to go, but only the largest streets and boulevards were marked.  After a few minutes we came to a decision which can best be summed up as “help!” We began looking around for someone, anyone who might be able to assist us. It hardly mattered whether they spoke English or not, desperation breeds flexibility. Our taxi driver, “trei leu” friend, was still standing by his car, waiting on a naive passenger to fleece. We both thought it would have been hilarious to ask him for directions, but decided against it for obvious reasons.

Tim and the Bucharest flower seller

Tim and the Bucharest flower seller

No Sense Of Direction – Mixed Messages
On the nearest street corner we did notice a woman selling flowers who looked kind and helpful. We approached her with the hotel address in hand. She smiled politely then studied the address for a long period of time. The look on her face was one of perplexity. Attempts to explain our situation only added to the confusion. We pointed up and down the boulevard, at another nearby street and finally tried to persuade her to point us in any direction. She spoke no English, but tried hard to understand our mixed messages. Finally she raised a finger, as if to say I know what you need. Then she reached in to her pockets and pulled out some lei. She was trying to give us money, but for what. We both started vigorously shaking our heads from side to side. We did not need any money.

Suddenly we realized what she was trying to do, give us money for a taxi. She pointed at a nearby taxi. We began laughing and the flower seller did the same. The irony was incredible.  Of the first two people we had met in Bucharest, one tried to scam us, while the other wanted to give us money. We were finally able to make our flower seller friend understand that we did not want to take a taxi or need any money. She was able to somehow get us headed in the right direction. Before leaving we snapped a photo of her smiling. The craziness and confusion had alleviated our angst. It is incredible how just one person can make a city seem welcoming.

Old Bucharest - Central University Library

Old Bucharest – Central University Library (Credit: Ștefan Jurcă)

Paris Of The East – An Old, Grand Ghost
After a few wrong turns we were able to find our hotel. It was located close to Carol Park (Parcul Carol), which is home to the Nation’s Heroes Memorial, Romania’s version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After we settled in, I decided to go for a run to get my first look at Bucharest. I did not have many preconceived notions about the city before I arrived. Most of what I knew about Bucharest and Romania came to me from Robert Kaplan’s famous geopolitical travelogue Balkan Ghosts and reading 1990’s era travel guides I had purchased at clearance book sales. For a place that was no one’s idea of a major tourist destination, including in Romania, it had once enjoyed an exalted status.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bucharest was known as the Paris of the East, a charming, amorous city of inspired architecture filled with people speaking a Romance language. It was a rough approximation of the French capital, as close as one could get to it at the time for Eastern Europe.  Bucharest’s mysterious, exotic reputation also came from having once been a stop on the famous Orient Express railway line. All of this old world grandeur made it sound like an appealing destination. The reality that initially confronted me was much different.

A Vision Of Madness - Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

A Vision Of Madness – Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest

The Looming Legacy – A Sterile Space
I hoped Bucharest would be better then what we had seen on our ride into the city. Its outer areas had been a dusty urban conurbation that looked dirty, congested and decidedly lacking in charm. There was the usual tower apartment blocks that loomed as a menacing architectural memory of the grim development strategy of the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. These soul destroying, concrete structures pockmarked the skyline. They looked like the kind of places where a sense of community goes to die. There was no escaping Ceaucescu’s legacy in Bucharest. It was what had brought me to the city. I traveled there with my new found friend Tim because he was going to visit the Palace of Parliament, that communist era monstrosity that had gained worldwide fame as a monument to one man’s megalomania. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. I rearranged my entire Eastern European trip to see it. The Palace was one of the most famous symbols of the Communist era anywhere in the world.

Though I would be visiting the Palace the next day, I could not control my urge to take a quick look at the building. I found a much better map which helped me figure out how to find my way there. All I really needed to do was run for about ten minutes to where the parliament was located. Then I could spend the rest of an hour running laps on the sidewalk around it. My first impression was one of awe, at the unbelievable massiveness of the structure. This became clearer each time I ran all the way around it. It took a good fifteen minutes to make a single lap. An expansive space surrounded the Palace. Some might call it a yawning void. It took up a huge area, but all around it was a sort of sterile emptiness. Nothing about the palace or its immediate surroundings was human in scale. The entire complex seemed as though it had come from another world and truth be told, it had. That world began to disappear in the winter of 1989 with the execution of the Ceaucescu’s, but their legacy still loomed over Romania much lie the Palace towered over Bucharest.

Waylaid by “Trei Leu” – Getting Taken: Taxi Torment In Bucharest (Travels In Eastern Europe #16)

It is often said that the only thing certain in life ais death and taxes. I would also add a third certainty, the cheating, scamming and dishonesty of Bucharest taxi drivers. The stories are legion of unsuspecting tourists, travelers and even locals being grossly overcharged by hundreds or even thousands of lei. And it is not just cheating on fares that have given Bucharest taxis a rightfully bad reputation. It is also the fact that they are known for their nasty demeanor. They are mean to their passengers and just as mean to those who avoid their services.  Aggressive, seedy and venal are apt descriptions of the Romanian capital’s cabbies.

In most Eastern European cities tourists are warned to avoid unlicensed taxis. In Bucharest tourists are warned to avoid almost all taxis, whether or not they are officially licensed hardly seems to matter. Of course there are many exceptions, but just to be on the safe side staying out of a Bucharest taxi is a wise precaution. That is unless you like conflict, threats and controversy in large doses. If stereotypes ever saved anyone, then it certainly has to be those potential passengers who have had the good sense to avoid a Bucharest taxi ride based on hearsay. They were saved time, money and trouble. If it seems as though I am being a bit too harsh let me add that I have personal experience with a short, albeit memorable taxi ride in the city. It was my first and what I hope to be last taxi ride in Bucharest for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Ready and waiting - taxis in Bucharest

Ready and waiting – taxis in Bucharest
(Credit: Tiia Monto)

Planning From Behind – A Sense of Misdirection
It was an ill-conceived idea that went against common sense. Find a taxi on the street in Bucharest within five minutes after arriving in the city for the first time.  I would never have tried this if I had been alone, but fortunately I was traveling with a new friend Tim, who I had met at a hostel in Bulgaria. Tim grew up in Chicago and now lived in New York City. He was city smart with experience in navigating an urban jungle. Tim had probably hailed more taxis in a day than I had in my entire life. Plus he was a transportation planner/engineer which I somehow correlated with expertise on finding an honest Bucharest taxi service.

Our predicament resulted from a failure to plan ahead. With a bad set of directions and poor map we figured that our hotel could not be far away. We did have one advantage. The maxi-taxi which had brought us to Bucharest from Bulgaria had let us off close to the city center, but not beside any bus or railway stations. This meant we would not be overrun by aggressive cabbies right away. We would have time to collect our thoughts, strategize and formulate a plan. This all sounded good in theory. A more sensible plan would have involved a better map of the city so we could have walked or taken public transport to the hotel. We were planning from behind, not what anyone should do when faced with the formidable scamming skills of Bucharest taxi drivers.

A Constant Battle – Surprises, Scams & Shenanigans
We had no one to blame but our own selves for this situation. Our guidebooks and the internet had contained countless warnings. To give an idea of how bad the situation can be, Bucharest taxis do not just rip off tourists, they are also notoriously tough on their fellow countrymen. This state of affairs may seem stereotypical of post-communist Romania, a nation stuck in a constant battle against endemic corruption. On the other hand, anyone who has dealt with Romanians will know just how kind and helpful they can be. That makes it all the more shocking when having to deal with a fork-tongued, duplicitous Bucharest taxi driver. They are in a class all their own, a very low and corrupt class at that.

There is no end to the shenanigans these taxis pull on a daily basis. For example, many will list a nighttime rate that is lower than their actual daily rate. The problem is that the daily rate is listed in small font that is imperceptible to those who do not know where to look. Some rogue taxis will take naïve passengers for a ride, then also lay claim to their luggage. The passenger can only get their luggage back after paying a super hefty finder’s fee. Of course, the finder happens to their taxi driver. Only then will the driver unlock the trunk. One of the more clever tricks rogue taxi services use involves having a name and logo that approximates a reputable service. Thus, Speed Taxi (which is one of the more trustworthy company) is often mimicked by a firm known as Street. The confusion they are able to cause has lightened the wallet of many unsuspecting travelers. It also serves as a less than desirable welcome to Bucharest.

Triple The Price – Where It All Started
Our welcome to Bucharest was a little bit better, but not much. Tim and I spotted a taxi that according to our guidebooks was part of a reliable firm. The rate was posted clearly in the window. We approached the driver from behind so as to surprise him. He looked at the address we handed to him, nodded and dutifully placed our luggage in the trunk. We double checked the posted rate with him one more time before setting off. We felt at ease when he turned on meter as the taxi proceeded down a wide boulevard.

Within thirty seconds our calm was broken by shouts from the driver. He began to yell, “trei leu, trei leu, trei leu.” Even with almost zero knowledge of Romanian we both knew he was tripling the price. After a few seconds of shock, Tim and I settled on a plan. We began to shout back for the driver to pull over immediately. At first he tried to ignore our protestations, but we kept on yelling until he pulled over to the curb. We waited for him to get out and go to the trunk. The driver would not look us in the eye.  We hovered close to him as he flung open the trunk. We took our bags out and proceeded over to the sidewalk. The taxi sped off. Within five minutes Tim and I were back to where we started. So was the taxi driver who stood beside his vehicle waiting for another opportunity to “trei leu”.