All I Remember Is Saying Goodbye – Debrecen To Budapest: A Crisis Of Consciousness

One of the great laments in my life is that I have only been able to spend a limited amount of time in Eastern Europe. The trips I have taken to the region now number in the double digits, but cumulatively they add up to only half a year of my life. Of course, I have been much more fortunate than most. At least I have been able to indulge my passion for the region over twenty-six sometimes spectacular, always revealing weeks of travel. As memorable as each trip has been, I find myself increasingly alarmed by the blank spots in my memory. Though I try to remember everything I can by taking notes and snapping hundreds of photographs there are still so many moments I fail to remember.

Several things are becoming increasingly clear to me. First, I have taken so many trips that they are now all beginning to run together. I can distinctly recall almost everything about my first two trips to Eastern Europe. I can distinctly remember what I did on each day of those journeys, the arrival in Sofia, the bus trip to Bucharest, a flight to Sarajevo, a train across three countries on the way to Pecs and so forth. My last trip is always completely clear as well, that is until I do another trip. The last trip always overtakes the one before it. The next to last one then exists in a netherworld of confused memory. Secondly, that I am getting older. This has resulted in either very detailed memories – such as a fog engulfed visit to Tata in western Hungary many years ago, where I can still mentally trace my footsteps past waterwheels, along the shores of Old Lake Tata, a dessert lunch at a Cukraszda (patisserie) and standing outside the Parish Church trying to take a photo as a tour group milled around the entrance – or the opposite effect where I remember nothing. This includes a very faint recollection of a walk I once took around central Vienna. I remember wandering around and that is about it.

The Parish Church - Tata Hungary

As I remember – The Parish Church in Tata Hungary

Memory Gap- The Trip I Cannot Remember
Searching my travel memories, I realize that several days in a row can pass where I have no idea what occurred. Without the aid of notes and photos these days would now amount to nothing. This came to mind when I received a call the other day from a friend who accompanied me on my last trip to Eastern Europe. He asked me if I could “remember that train ride we took back from Debrecen to Budapest?”  I was suddenly at a loss. He tried to refresh my memory. “All I remember is saying goodbye to Ibolya when she dropped us off at the train station? I can’t remember anything else.” At that moment neither could I. He is seventy and I am forty-six, this was worrisome. As he kept talking I lost track of what he was saying as I tried to recall a memory, any memory. I finally said, “I can remember walking to the platform through that ghastly underground corridor.”

The only reason I recalled the corridor was because passing through it triggered a memory of a post I had written awhile back about how menacing that place felt, with its communist era chipped paint job, cold concrete and the smell of decades old mildew. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. My friend continued to search his memory for any detail that might help him recall that train trip. I finally said, “I think there was some woman sitting behind us who kept talking the whole time.” She had been incredibly irritating, loudly conversing with her son. She would pause for 30 seconds of silence and then predictable go off again on minutes long binges of verbiage. My friend did recall this, “Yes I got up and moved to get away from her.” That ended up being the only memory we could excavate from a two and half hour train ride across the Great Hungarian Plain. Such a pity that of all the things I could have remembered it was of a woman who would not shut up.

Filling in the memory gap - Puspokladany Train Station

Filling in the memory gap – Puspokladany Train Station

From Puspokladany To Torokszentmiklos – Running Out Of Memories
After our conversation I began to try and remember all the things I have forgotten. In other words, I attempted the impossible. There are all those train and bus trips I have never written about because everything went according to plan. Contentment might be what I am searching for in life, but it is the enemy of fascinating journeys. No great truths are to be unearthed in comfort and refinement. There are those Hungarian cities, towns and villages I have passed through more times than I will ever remember. They now inhabit an unconscious oblivion. Places such as Puspokladany in eastern Hungary which I have been through, but not actually to, at least twenty times. What do I remember about it? The outlines of a two story, rather elegant station, a vacant platform other than the station keeper – a sort of goodbye greeter – stepping out to signal whether to stay or go. Is this what I have spent so much time, energy and money chasing? At a certain point, travel infused with familiarity becomes a little too much like the life I left behind. This amnesia creeps over and manages to consume me one trip at a time. The easier things get, the less they mean to me, thus the more I proceed to forget.

And then there is the Torokszentmiklos syndrome. This can best be described as a self-induced psychosis of indifferent procrastination, that one day I will travel there to finally see what I promised myself umpteen times in the past, a mid-sized town out along the Great Hungarian Plain. All I can remember is a massive church in the near distance which has managed to impress itself upon my imagination. I have to see that church up close, stand in its shadow and admire the handy work of people whose names I will never pronounce correctly. I do not remember when was the first or the last time that I saw it. For many years I have wanted to visit that church. I always promise myself that I will go there the next time. I am running out of next times, the way I am running out of memories. I am running along the same rails again and again, failing to even remember what I have forgotten. Stuck in that vicious netherworld of travel pervaded by a stultifying sameness. The will to change direction now escapes me.

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) - in Torokszentmiklos

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) – in Torokszentmiklos (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

The Fascination Grows Faint – A Lost Experience
I wonder when I will finally forget all about Torokszentmiklos or Puspokladany. I am trying so hard to remember everything, that I must not have noticed anything. I certainly do not remember passing by those towns on that last trip with my friend. I was there, but I wasn’t there. At least I can remember that I have forgotten all about them. This exercise in frustration and futility reminds me of only one thing, that woman’s banal chattering. I went halfway around the world and that is what I left myself with, memories lost the way they are in everyday life. This is not a crisis of confidence, more a crisis of consciousness. The fascination of traveling to these places has grown faint, the same as my memory. Somewhere way out in eastern Hungary I lost an entire experience, but I was still awake and alive when it occurred. That is the most frightening memory of all.




The Book Of Names – Erno Berger: A Resurrection At Auschwitz

It was in Block 27 at Auschwitz that I came upon one of the most arresting physical representations of the Holocaust ever conceived. In one room of the block can be found The Book of Names. The title of the exhibit is perfectly descriptive, but trying to explain the effect of this voluminous compendium of death is not easy. Try to imagine the number and size of the pages it would take to print the names of 4.2 million people. Now imagine that after each name, the year and place where that person was born is given. Finally, try to visualize that at the end of each entry, the place where the person was murdered during the Holocaust is listed, if it is known. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine The Book of Names. The entire exhibit stretches out over several meters with the large pages bound together in a multi rowed, thick compendium of tragedy. It is the thickest book I have ever seen before and I hope to never see another one like it again.

What makes this huge tome particularly unfathomable is its subject matter and what that endless list of names says about humanity. Everyone listed in the book was murdered due to a choice by one group of human beings to single out and destroy another group. This litany of depressing data gives the sparse details of the individual lives and deaths of millions. Open The Book of Names to any page and one is confronted with hundreds of lines that cause the senses to reel. Soon the eyes glaze over as one name looks like another name. After a couple of pages all those lines run together. The sheer immensity of this catalog documenting the humanity lost in the Holocaust can scarcely be conceptualized by the mind. The only way for me to make any sense of it was to seek out an individual name. I had one to focus on, a personal connection, that suddenly made my eyes stop and closely search all those lines for traces of an existence.

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Outlines Of A Life – The Power Of Presence

The name I searched for was that of Erno Berger. It took me several minutes just to find the specific page. There was not one Erno Berger, but many lines listing men with that same name from a multitude of places in Eastern Europe. There were thirty-one Erno Bergers in all. Just the fact that the name was repeated so many times was a chilling reminder to me the depth and penetration of the Nazi’s genocidal thoroughness. I began to study each Erno Berger entry more closely until I found the specific one I was searching for. Finally, I came upon the following entry: Berger, Erno, 2/3/1982 Belgrad, Yugoslavia, Place of death unknown.

It was a surreal feeling to find this Erno Berger. Suddenly, I felt a pulse of energy and interest. A tangible connection had been made. For a moment, at least for me, Erno Berger rose from beyond all those pages, he came back to life, if just for a moment. He was no longer anonymous or just another name among millions, but a person whose existence had been documented. He lived on in this handful of details, straddling a couple of lines his life and death came down to these inches. It is an extraordinarily powerful feeling to never have met someone, to have been born a quarter century after they died and yet feel like they are very close to you. I could not touch this man’s presence, but he was touching mine. I, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no Jewish blood suddenly had a connection, a thread that I could unspool and use to trace the outlines of a life lost among millions of others lost.

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

From Father To Son  – Making A Name For Themselves
Who was Erno Berger and why was I searching for him in The Book Of Names?  He was born in Belgrad during the late winter of 1892. His father was J Kohn. Eventually he migrated to Debrecen in eastern Hungary where he worked as an electrician. In June 1944, he along with nearly the entire community of Jews in Debrecen – 7,411 to be precise – was rounded up and deported. The deportees were sent either to Auschwitz or Austria where many more would die in forced labor battalions. Which one Erno Berger went to is still a mystery. Somehow he ended up in Bergen-Belsen where he died. One thing is for certain, he never came back to Debrecen. The only existing remnant of his existence is his name on a memorial wall. It can be found in the courtyard of one of only two active synagogues left in Debrecen. He never saw his ethnic Hungarian wife again or the lone child that was born to the couple not long after Erno’s deportation.

This son would be given the name of the father he never knew. His surname eventually changed, as so many Hungarians Jews did during the communist period to avoid persecution and any lingering anti-Semitism. Assimilation was no longer necessary to survive, but it was to thrive. The son would grow up to become a noted physician in the city that had rejected his father. He would eventually marry a Hungarian as well, just as his father did. This was in the late 1960’s rather than the mid-1940’s. Hungary was a very different place by then. The kind of place where a man with brilliant intellect and smarts could achieve great things, despite or perhaps because of communism. And this son did just that. He healed, he taught, he loved and he lived. If not for him, I would never have been standing at Auschwitz searching for the name of Erno Berger.

A Lot To Learn – Ancestral Feelings
The son and by extension his father really must have been something, to have such power and influence continue beyond life. I never met either of them and never will. The day the son died I was still in high school. I did not know anything about Hungary and the Holocaust meant little to me other than what we learned of it in history class. I had a lot to learn then, I still do now. Erno Berger and his son meant a whole new world to me because they were my wife’s grandfather and father respectively. It has been through her that I came to know them. And it has been through her that I can see them.

Both Eyebrows On The Road – Leadfoot Leonid: Brezhnev Behind The Wheel

Anyone who remembers the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev cannot help but recall his stolid rigidity, dark, ultra-thick eyebrows and frosty visage. Brezhnev became the human face for the stagnation and stolidity that beset the Soviet Union during his long and depressing reign over the country from 1964 to 1982. He looked like a block of ice animated only by Politburo meetings and military parades. For a generation he was the ultimate symbol of unwavering allegiance to a corrupt, ossified system that could not and would not be reformed. It is hard to disassociate Brezhnev’s image from the slow, inexorable downslide of communism.

He was iconic in the worst of ways, a cult of bad personality that was about as memorable as any ordinary nightmare. Yet there was another side to him, livelier but just as unsavory. Those who knew Brezhnev privately saw a man who was shockingly vain and materialistic. A lover of fur coats and the finer things in life that communist leaders such as himself supposedly abhorred, but secretly hoarded. He craved the trappings of luxury, never more so then when it came to automobiles. Brezhnev loved nothing more than quite literally life, in the fast lane. He drove wild and loose in some of the best automobiles that his power could purchase for him.

Collision course - Leonid Brezhnev ready to roll

Collision course – Leonid Brezhnev ready to roll

More Equal Than Others – At Everyone Else’s Expense
I once heard a story that Brezhnev ran someone over while driving from one of his dachas on the outskirts of Moscow on his way into the Kremlin. This story may be apocryphal, than again Soviet leaders could do almost anything they wanted to without reason. Like every exaggerated story the one about hit and run Brezhnev contains many seeds of truth. Brezhnev loved to drive his personal collection of automobiles at very high speeds. He had no less than eighty-two cars to choose from. Many of these had been given to him by other heads of state. Consider that this occurred in a country where the highly successful might have to wait five years or longer for an opportunity to purchase a very poorly made car. Brezhnev proved Orwell’s metaphorical aphorism from Animal Farm, “that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Brezhnev was a leader who got what he wanted at everyone else’s expense. A pseudo dictator who was just as corrupt as the system he presided over. A running joke often told among Soviet citizens is revealing. In the telling, Brezhnev takes his elderly mother on a personal tour of one of his luxurious homes in the Russian countryside. She remains silent throughout, even when Brezhnev showed her his fleet of luxury automobiles. Finally, he got fed up and asked her what she thought. To which she replied, “It’s very nice, but what will happen when the Communists come back to power?” This was Soviet style communism at middle age, corrupt to the core.

Leonid Brezhnev - receiving the keys to a 1973 Lincoln Continental from Richard Nixon at Camp David

Leonid Brezhnev – receiving the keys to a 1973 Lincoln Continental from Richard Nixon at Camp David

Crash Course – Taken For A Ride
One of the most famous car stories of the Brezhnev era concerned a trip he made to Camp David in the mountains of western Maryland where he met with President Richard Nixon. This less than dynamic duo could have rightly been called partners in political crime. On this occasion, Nixon played to Brezhnev’s love of cars in an incident that almost led to dire consequences for both men. Much to his joy the usually stolid Soviet leader was presented with the keys to a brand new 1973 Lincoln Continental. Little did Nixon know that this gift would lead to a ride risking both their lives. As soon as Brezhnev took possession of the keys, he was raring to take the Lincoln for a drive. Lead foot Leonid got in and invited Nixon to join him. Despite the reservations of a Secret Service agent who grew alarmed when he realized what was about to happen, Nixon took the front passenger seat.

The two most powerful men in the world at that time then started down one of the narrow, curvy roads around the perimeter of Camp David. Brezhnev was not familiar with the route. He was used to driving however he liked. In no time at all, he sped the car up to 50 miles per hour then started down a hill that led into a dangerous curve. Brezhnev was throwing caution to the wind. Nixon must have wondered if they were on a collision course with fate or a tree. The Soviet leader was out for an adrenaline rush in a dream car, while the American president sat beside him terrified. Brezhnev was in control of the car, Nixon was just along for the ride. The situation might best be described as too fast for conditions and Nixon knew it. As they sped into the curve Nixon told Brezhnev to “slow down, slow down.” Abruptly the Soviet leader hit the brakes, the tires squalled, but the car safely made the turn. A relieved Nixon complimented Brezhnev on his driving skills, proof that a little lie can help when it comes to diplomacy.

Fast Friends - Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at Camp David

Fast Friends – Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev share a lighter moment at Camp David (Credit Robert L. Knudsen)

Driving Them Crazy – A Show Of Credentials
This was not the only time Brezhnev looked to drive his new Lincoln on American roads. While in Washington, D.C he wanted to take the car out for a spin around the city. He was informed that the Secret Service would not allow him to do this. It must have been a shock to the system for Brezhnev to realize he could not do anything he wanted, even in America.  This did not stop him from dreaming up a disguise so that Americans would not be able to recognize him. He offered to, “take the flag off the car, put on dark glasses, so they can’t see my eyebrows and drive like any American would.” To this idea, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger quipped, “I have driven with you and I don’t think you drive like an American.” One can only wonder how many traffic laws Brezhnev would have broken that day if his wish had been granted. He could have easily been charged by the police for being an unlicensed driver. His response would likely have been to show them his party card. With this show of credentials, Brezhnev would have probably driven them crazy.

One Among Many Millions – Life Lost: The Tragedy of Kazimierz (Travels In Eastern Europe #47)

Krakow and the city’s rich Jewish heritage are inseparable. Tragically that heritage no longer really exists in human form. It was all but wiped out by the Holocaust, but many physical traces remain. These can be found in the district of Kazimierz. The district gained notoriety after the award-winning film Schindler’s List came out. Several scenes were filmed in the district by Steven Spielberg, who chose the district for its authenticity. Krakow’s suburbs were also home to Schindler’s enamelware factory. In these places, an entire sub-genre of Krakow’s tourist industry has developed. Visits to notable Jewish sites are now on nearly every city tour’s itinerary.

These sites include eleven different synagogues. As museums, they offer a window into the mystical, eastern exoticism of Judaism which managed to coexist largely in peace with Polish Catholicism for over five hundred years. That was until all force of life was taken from these by the Holocaust. The rituals and traditions of Judaism that were observed in Krakow’s synagogues mean little without people. Today only a single synagogue is still active in the city. That is because only about 200 Jews now live in Krakow. The human destruction of Polish Jewry is frightening to contemplate. In less than six years, millions of people and an entire culture were almost completely obliterated.

Kazimierz scene

Kazimierz scene (Credit: Barbara Maliszewska)

Looming Shadow – Auschwitz In The Distance
I was able to visit the lasting traces of Jewish Krakow while in the city. This led me to a looming question: Should I visit the site where many of Krakow’s Jews perished, the most infamous concentration camp of all, Auschwitz? It was hard to avoid thoughts of Auschwitz while staying in Krakow, since the site was only 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the city. Tours to the camp were advertised by multiple agencies. There were also twelve trains per day traveling between Krakow and Oswiecim (Polish for Auschwitz) for those who wanted to visit on their own. When I first heard the Polish name for the camp, it somehow made seemed less menacing. The German name had come to symbolize the Holocaust in all its horror.

A million and a half people had perished in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (Birkenau also known as Auschwitz II was an extermination camp).  That figure was twice the current population of Krakow. This was industrial genocide on an unfathomable scale. And it was the largest of several such camps that had soaked the soil of Poland with the blood of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and a host of other peoples from every nation of occupied Europe. Polish Jewry had suffered the worst of this cataclysm. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, 70% of all the Jews in the world lived in Poland. By way of comparison, today 40% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 40% in the United States. The percentage left in Poland is miniscule. In 1939 there were approximately 3 million Jews in Poland, now there are 20,000. 68,000 lived in the district of Kazimierz, only 200 still live in Krakow today. The Nazis campaign to eradicate the Jews in Poland had been monstrously successful and Auschwitz was the ultimate example of that.

Remuh (Old Jewish Cemetery) - in Kazimierz

Remuh (Old Jewish Cemetery) – in Kazimierz (Credit: Emmanuel Dyan)

For All The Wrong Reasons – A Detour Into Darkness
Auschwitz was the darkest day trip imaginable. I was curious, but loathed myself for such curiosity. No one wants to admit it, but many people are fascinated by Auschwitz, that is usually what happens when something that horrific has not personally affected you. There would be a human connection, but not an intimately personal one. Going to Auschwitz because of fascination felt like the wrong thing to do, while not going to Auschwitz also felt like the wrong thing to do. I finally decided not to go. The main reason I made that choice was a previous visit to another concentration camp at Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. It was nowhere near the scope or scale of Auschwitz, but I still carried that nightmare memory with me all the way to Krakow. It caused me to recoil at the thought of ever visiting a concentration camp again.

All concentration camps are awful, but some are more awful than others and each are awful in their own way. The one thing I never forgot from my Sachsenhausen visit was how the Nazis sometimes made prisoners take part in executions of other prisoners, ensuring that everyone shared in the guilt. When it comes to guilt, concentration camps have a way of spreading that feeling around, even to visitors who were far removed from them by time, place or nationality. Sachsenhausen showed me the depths of evil to which human beings can sink. Auschwitz-Birkenau would have multiplied that effect a hundredfold. Instead of visiting there I took the easy way out, going on a free tour of Jewish Krakow. We went through Kazimierz in the late afternoon, viewing old synagogues which were ancient by American standards and seeing a few of the places shown in Schindler’s List. The places were interesting and atmospheric, but I felt like this was more window dressing history than a deep dive into the horrific tragedy that had consumed the area. While many Jewish sites were still standing in Kazimierz, these were inert testimonials of a vanished culture.

Jewish youth walking in Kazimierz during the 1930s

Jewish youth walking in Kazimierz during the 1930s

Nightmare Vision – That Which No Longer Exists
Where were the people who made these places come alive? They were all dead. It was a sobering thought. Oddly enough, it was not the physical remnants of Jewish Krakow that left me with the greatest impression, but a human aspect that provided the most meaning. While touring Kazimierz I noticed a couple. I assumed they were Orthodox Jews by their dress. I walked past them on one of the cobbled streets. They would stop periodically to look closer at a building, talk quietly then walk on. I had no idea what their conversation entailed.

Watching them walk slowly away, it suddenly struck me that this scene had been repeated here thousands of times, on countless evenings prior to the Holocaust. This couple’s stroll was nothing special. That was until I realized that it rarely ever occurred in Kazimierz anymore. Daily life for Jews in Kazimierz, such as an evening stroll, quietly conversing, enjoying the atmosphere had been all but extinguished. Both lives and life had been lost because of the Holocaust. Those things we think of as so simple and so normal and so human, no longer take place for Jews in Krakow. A terrible tragedy, one among many millions.



A Paradise That Was Never Lost – Krakow: The Great Escape (Travels In Eastern Europe #46)

If Warsaw was an acquired taste than Krakow turned out to be my favorite flavor. It did not take me long after arriving in the city to realize that the old Royal capital of Poland was a jewel box that offered up a multitude of sumptuous treasures. The beauty of Krakow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) was a feast for my eyes. It was both quaintly charming and splendidly grand, thoroughly royal and invitingly homey. Spectacular, but on a human scale. Resisting the charms of Krakow was impossible. I gave in willingly to this seduction. It had everything, a world class castle, ecstatic Renaissance architecture, evocative neighborhoods filled with the ambiance of vanished cultures and enough history to fill a set of encyclopedias. It was one of the most enthralling places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking time and again that Krakow should be the capital of Poland. It is little wonder that following the movement of Poland’s capital to Warsaw in 1596, Polish kings continued to be crowned at the famed coronation castle on Wawel Hill. Such was its magnificence that Krakow could make royalty fall at its feet. I was no different, unable to resist its enchanting allure. My impression of Poland would largely be informed by Krakow. To the point that Warsaw became a faint memory. That led me to question how Krakow had managed to avoid the worst excesses inflicted on Poland over the last several centuries. The answer, luck.

Wawel Castle - A crowning achievement in Krakow

Wawel Castle – A crowning achievement in Krakow (Credit: Jakub Hahn)

The Unscathed City – Great Escapes
One of the most tragic of numerous traumas in Polish history was the partitions. Over the course of three separate, but similar instances – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 – Poland was carved into oblivion by ravenous neighboring states. Portions of it were divvied up to the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires. Krakow, as part of a region that came be known as Galicia, was fortunate enough to end up under Austrian rule, which was relatively lenient, largely respecting Polish culture. Nevertheless, in 1794 a revolt started in Krakow’s Market Square. The rebellion turned out to be still born, as it was rapidly quelled by Prussian forces who then looted treasures from Wawel Castle. Fortunately for Krakow, this turned out to be pretty much the worst of its suffering during that era when Poland was partitioned into nonexistence. For three decades – beginning in 1815 – Krakow enjoyed an exalted status as a nominally independent Free City.

Meanwhile, Warsaw suffered as a frontier and administrative outpost on the fringes of the Russian Empire. Tsarist control was extremely heavy handed with few rights for ethnic Poles. The same was true for the Polish population in what had once been the Kingdom of Poland’s western reaches, as they were subjected to intense Germanisation by their Teutonic overlords. Meanwhile, the situation continued to improve for Krakow in the latter half of the 19th century. The province of Galicia was given autonomy by the Austrians in 1868, leading to a wellspring of Polish intellectual and cultural revival whose epicenter was in Krakow. The city was proving to be Poland’s favorite child time and again, sidestepping the draconian measures inflicted on its fellow countrymen in other parts of the land. Krakow’s elegant Old Town sparkled radiant in the waning light of the hundred-year peace that lasted from 1815 through 1914.

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town - Kraków

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town – Kraków (Credit: Taxiarchos228)

Superficial Survival – The Darkest Of Ironies
Two cataclysmic world wars wreaked havoc on Poland. At least superficially, Krakow remained intact, but the human toll was tremendous. In the First World War, much of the population fled the city to avoid a Russian siege in the depths of winter. Twenty-five years later the situation turned exponentially worse, even though it did not start that way. On the sixth day of the war, Krakow’s mayor surrendered the city before it could be attacked. The Germans then decided to headquarter their General Government (administering occupied Poland) in the city. This meant that very few bombs fell on Krakow. While Warsaw underwent repeated waves of destruction, Krakow’s architecture remained intact. Inside museums and churches it was a much different story, as countless works of art were stolen by the Nazis. Intellectuals were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps.

The greatest price was paid by the city’s Jewish population, some 70,000 lived in the city when the Germans first arrived in 1939. Famously, Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews working at his enamel factory. While a heartwarming story, that figure pales in comparison to the approximately 65,000 Jewish Krakovians who perished in the Holocaust. By the end of the war only about 4,000 Jews were left in Krakow. Though much of the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz was left intact, the people and culture it had fostered were extinguished. It would eventually become a place for tourists, rather than Jews. Parts of Schindler’s List would be filmed there, bringing it much acclaim. Many failed to see the macabre irony in this. It would never have been used as a film set if a thriving Jewish community had still existed.

There was another dark irony to come during the Cold War. Krakow’s architecture may have survived World War II intact, but a focus on heavy industry by the postwar ruling communist regime inflicted much greater damage, especially in a superficial sense. This was almost totally due to Nowa Huta, a vast industrial development and planned urban settlement built as an eastern suburb to the city. The Nowa Huta steelworks was one of world’s largest. The pollution emitted from that giant complex left the city’s historic architecture coated in a sheen of toxic grime. The district was supposed to be a touchstone of enlightened central planning that would expedite the movement towards a worker’s paradise. Instead, it became a cauldron of dissent. By placing so much of the working class in one area, it spawned movements against, rather than for the state. Communism finally collapsed, just like fascism and imperial authority had before it, the one thing still standing in Krakow was its architecture, awaiting a restoration that would soon arrive.

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square - Krakow

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square – Krakow (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

Eternal Mission – The Peak Of Poland’s Past
The restored and preserved version of Krakow was the one I had come to visit. A city of superlatives, architecturally, culturally and intellectually. Here was the greatness of Poland, collected all in one place. Eastern Europe’s Renaissance city with an edge, a paradise that could never be quite lost. Krakow was a romance with many dark chapters, but it had arrived at a happy ending. This was its lot and its luck. Krakow always managed to find a way to escape and was an escape, at least for the Poles. The city acted as a hidden gate that led back to the glittering kingdom that once was and would forever be Poland. Now another golden age was in progress, the city was living off and building upon itself, realizing an eternal mission to forever stand at the peak of Poland’s past.


Worried In Warsaw –Alcoholics Synonymous: Binges & Bellicosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #44)

The Oki-Doki City Hostel was my initial destination in Warsaw. The name was ironic considering that I felt the opposite of relaxed. Sleep deprivation made me extremely irritable. The hostel turned out to be nice, unfortunately I was not in the mood for nice. I had slept for a total of ten minutes over the last 28 hours. I had a dull headache, was shaking like someone coming off a week-long bender and having trouble comprehending anything other than yes and no. Like almost every hostel I have ever stayed in, the place was a hive of youthful activity, with young backpacker types bouncing through the hallways to their own internal rhythms.

As for myself, I had two choices on how to spend the rest of this day, try to sleep even though it was midday or go see a bit of the city. My decision was made easier by the fact that I was sharing a room with several others. I had been unable to book a private room at what was reputedly the best hostel in Warsaw. Upon checking in I discovered a college age Taiwanese student and her mother hanging out in the room. They were very polite and well-mannered, but command of the English language was about all we had in common. It would have been exceedingly difficult to sleep while they talked. Thus, I chose to see what I could of Warsaw before the sun went down. I decided to make my way over to the Old Town (Stare Miesto).

Bottoms up in Warsaw

Bottoms up in Warsaw

When You Least Expect It –Liquid Courage
My earlier fears regarding theft on the airport bus were now all but forgotten. Warsaw was a safe, clean city. If there was anything to fear, it would have been hard for me to notice, considering my near catatonic state. My focus was now on taking a leisurely stroll. In a matter of minutes, I was striding into Warsaw’s Old Town, gazing at the beautiful baroque structures lining the streets. After a couple of hours of wandering around the area, I began to head back towards the hostel. I was feeling relaxed, surprisingly pleasant considering my lack of sleep. Two weeks of travel were ahead of me, I was looking forward to new adventures. Then out of nowhere, I came to realize the truth about that old cliché of how things happen when you least expect them to.

As I walked out of the Old Town three men were sitting on top of a short wall. They were talking quite loudly. From the large brown bottles in their hands I could see that they were drinking beer. When they noticed me walking in their direction, one man alerted the others to my presence. They conversed among themselves, looked my way and began to laugh. This was a signal for trouble. I braced myself for a confrontation. Sure enough, one of them began shouting at me, asking if I spoke English while the others said spoke in Polish. They laughed loudly and continued making remarks, asking me if I was an Englishman or an American. I was nervous, but kept walking.

It was now early evening, there was still daylight and other people were within fifty yards. If anything happened I could yell for help. When I was almost past the men, one of them suddenly walked right up beside me. He grabbed my arm and began to ask a question. I did not flinch or jerk my arm away. Instead I stopped and looked down at the man’s hand resting on my arm, then looked him straight in the eye. From somewhere deep inside myself I found a reservoir of courage and said, “you are messing with the wrong man today.” His face turned ashen and he immediately let go of my arm. Neither my accoster or his accomplices said a word. There was silence. I kept on walking, this time with a newfound resolve. There was a skip in my step.

Intoxicating Experiences – The Rule Rather Than The Exception
I have always considered myself something of a coward, this likely stems from my schoolboy days when I failed to fight back against locker room bullies. My default setting in the past was always to cower in the face of a physical threat, but in Warsaw I did the opposite. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the raw energy of unreleased tension or just the fact that at a certain moment in life a man has had enough. Whatever the case, the reality was that the situation was resolved. Unfortunately, this would not be the first or last time that I was confronted by public intoxication in Warsaw. The very next morning while out for a run, I noticed several men passed out among the leafy foliage of the Saxon Gardens Park. Then, after arriving back in Warsaw at the end of my trip, I got on a public bus in the evening which was to drop me off near another hostel. That was when I saw a man taking up two seats while crouched in a semi-fetal position. When the bus started up he began to scream loudly until he passed out, falling into an angry sleep.

These three incidents of public intoxication made me wonder if alcohol was a major problem in Poland. Of course, all my evidence was anecdotal, but these experiences left me with questions. I would later discover that drinking is illegal on the street, in public squares and parks in Poland. The minimum fine is 100 zlotys ($28 dollars). This does not seem to be deterring some people. Poland ranks #14 in the world in alcohol consumption by person. This sounds alarmingly high, but ten other countries in Eastern Europe rank higher, including Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and Slovakia, which all border Poland. In other words, Poland is part of a region where alcohol consumption is inordinately high. What I witnessed is more likely the rule rather than the exception in Poland and the surrounding states.

Drink Up – Prosperity & Its Discontents
Much of the alcohol consumption in Eastern Europe and specifically Poland can be attributed to culture. Making matters worse, the economic instability caused by the transition from communism to capitalism has exacerbated alcohol abuse. Yet economically, Poland has done much better than its neighbors. One of the more disturbing pieces of information I unearthed, showed that alcohol intake increased 30% in Poland from 2001-2012. Poland joined the European Union in 2004, which led to a healthy boost in prosperity. Nevertheless, Poles drank not less, but more since joining. I witnessed the trend of heavy alcohol consumption – albeit anecdotally – in Warsaw. One of my enduring memories of the city will always be of publicly intoxicated individuals. As my experience in the Old Town showed, there really was something to be worried about in Warsaw.


For Which To Aspire – Hungarians In The Union Army: Fighting On A Far Western Front

While growing up in the American South the Civil War was an endless topic of conversation and consternation. Aspects of the war were analyzed in detail, battles dissected, generals rated, martial exploits of the common soldier told and retold. Everyone claimed to have an ancestor who had been on Robert E. Lee’s staff, while no one had an ancestor who had owned a slave. In early adulthood, I finally realized that the war was a hot topic of discussion for one reason and one reason only, because the South had lost. The stigma of defeat had been passed down from generation to generation. For all the glorious honor evoked by infinitely told tales, the harsh truth was that we had gotten our ass kicked.

Thoroughly beaten by those wretched “Yankees”, a word commonly used as both a pejorative and profane term. By “Yankees” we meant anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line. “Those people” who were from states such as New Yawk, Taxachusetts and Disconnecticutt. I had long been aware that plenty of immigrants had also fought for the Union, but I never thought any of them could be Eastern Europeans.  Then on a winter evening I stumbled upon a very different kind of Yankee, one that hailed from the Carpathian Basin.

Startling revelations usually arrive when least expected. Imagine my shock then, as I read the following sentence in Volume I of Shelby Foote’s incomparable history of the Civil War, “his (John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Western Department) personal staff included Hungarians and Italians with titles such as ‘adlatus to the chief’ and names that were hardly pronounceable to a Missouri tongue; Emavic, Meizarras, Kalamaneuzze were three among many.” This was the first time that I learned of Hungarians serving as officers in the Union Army. I found this information startling, but should not have been that surprised for two reasons. Hungarians had been arriving on the shores of North America, beginning as far back as 1583. Secondly, when the conflict broke out the Union was desperate for officers with battlefield experience. Many of the Union’s Hungarian officers came ready made for fighting, since they had served in the 1848/49 Hungarian War of Independence against Austria and later Russia that broke out following the revolutionary upheaval. The loss of that war led to a boatload of Hungarian military officers literally washing up on America’s shores.

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

Martial Bearing –  Exiled To War: From East To West
Of the several waves of Hungarian immigration to the United States the first is by far the smallest and least known. This wave consisted of the “Forty-Eighters” those Hungarian men of military bearing who fled the country after the revolution failed. The numbers were tiny by later standards of immigration, no more than two thousand Hungarians crossed the Atlantic. It is estimated that perhaps 400 of these fought in the war. That does not sound like much, but consider that there were only 4,000 Hungarians living in the United States at the time. As a proportion, Hungarians had greater participation in the war than any other immigrant group at the time. Furthermore, around a quarter of the Hungarians serving in the Union Army were officers. Thus, they took on a role of outsized importance, especially in the Western Department of John C. Fremont, the famous western explorer, presidential candidate and egotistical charlatan.

The more notable Hungarians who served in the Union Army were attached to Fremont’s command.  The most well-known, Alexander Asboth was born on the western shore of Lake Balaton at Keszthely to a prominent family. Asboth was trained as a military engineer. During the Hungarian Revolution, he served with distinction and became the favorite adjutant of Lajos Kossuth. Asboth came to the United States in 1851 along with the exiled Kossuth who was promoting the cause of Hungarian independence. Kossuth went back to Europe, Asboth decided to stay. When the Civil War broke out, Asboth was selected as Fremont’s chief of staff. He would later command a division at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Asboth was wounded twice in battle and ended the war as a brevetted Major General. This turned out to be the highest rank any ethnic Hungarian would attain in the Union Army.

General Alexander Asboth

General Alexander Asboth – (Credit: Matthew Brady – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Hungarian Chivalry In Missouri – Zagonyi Leads The Charge
If there had been an award for the most dashing and chivalrous ethnic Hungarian in the Union forces it would likely have gone to Charles Zagonyi. Zagonyi had served as a cavalry officer during the Hungarian War of Independence. When the Civil War broke out, Zagonyi reprised that role when he was chosen to lead Fremont’s personal bodyguard. Zagonyi achieved great fame from an improbable victory at the First Battle of Springfield which took place in southwestern Missouri in 1861. Outnumbered nearly five to one, Zagonyi led his cavalry force on three consecutive charges that scattered the opposing Confederate force. While high on drama, the strategic value of the victory left much to be desired. Zagonyi lost over a quarter of his force and was unable to hold Springfield. Nonetheless, Zagonyi gained lasting notoriety when Fremont’s wife – Jessie Benton Fremont – portrayed him as a heroic figure in her book, Story of the Guard, published during the war. Unfortunately, Zagonyi’s fame was fleeting as he was out of the army less than a year after charging into history.

Fremont’s coterie included several other Hungarians as well as many foreigners often dressed in elaborate, decoratively colored outfits. This led to criticism from those who visited Fremont’s command that the languages spoken there were unintelligible and the pageantry rather ridiculous. For instance, Zagonyi’s bodyguard was decked out in the garb of Polish hussars. The dark blue uniforms and headgear were little more than flourishes of vanity. Other Hungarians among Fremont’s most trusted confidants were better disguised, none more so than Philip Figyelmessy who brought an aptitude for espionage all the way from Eastern Europe to the Western Theater of the Civil War. Fremont also found a place on his staff for Emeric Szabad, the rare personage whose literary talent was matched by his military ability. He served with distinction throughout the war, managing to survive Fremont’s quick fall from grace to attain the rank of colonel by war’s end.

First Battle of Springfield - Zagonyi's Charge on October 25, 1861

First Battle of Springfield – Zagonyi’s Charge on October 25, 1861 (Credit: from book by Geza Kende)

To Admire & Aspire – Fighting For Freedom
Hundreds of other Hungarians fought for the Union throughout the war. They were not “Yankees” in the usual sense of the word as I learned it, they were Hungarians first and foremost. Military men who chose to fight for a new country. Fremont’s patronage allowed them an exalted position as officers in the Union forces. America offered them freedom and independence, something that their Hungarian homeland still did not enjoy. The martial exploits of the “Forty-Eighters” helped preserve the Union as a bright and shining example of a democratic republic. An example for all Hungarians to admire and for which to aspire.

The Ascension of Hungary – Marton Fucsovics & The Davis Cup Defeat Of Russia

On Sunday, September 17th the Hungarian Davis Cup team qualified for the 2018 World Group in a stunning upset over a heavily favored Russian team. Boisterous fans urged the home side on to victory. Seeing the cheering throngs left me wondering how many of those same fans were in the southeastern Hungarian city of Szeged in April 2014 when Hungary was mired in the lowest level of Davis Cup play. Likely very few and for good reason. Hungary had not been in World Group play since 1996, years of listless results had led to a downward spiral that found the team relegated to the Europe/Africa Zone III group. Zone III is the netherworld of the Davis Cup. The matches are best of three rather than best of five sets and the ties are decided by the first nation to win two matches. This zone is the preserve of such tennis lightweights as Andorra, Albania and Armenia. It was the latter nation that Hungary faced first on a spring day three years ago in Szeged.

Hungary vs. Russia - a Davis Cup tie to remember

Hungary vs. Russia – a Davis Cup tie to remember

Marton Fucsovics played a vital role for a victorious Hungarian team that triumphed over Armenia, Liechtenstein and Georgia in quick succession without the loss of a single set. In 2015, the Hungarian team completed another trifecta of victories while advancing to Group One. Progress stalled in July 2016 when the Hungarians suffered a defeat at the hands of Slovakia, only to avenge that earlier this year with an upset win over the Slovaks in Bratislava. All of these victories were led by the play of Fucsovics, who was in the process of becoming a one man Davis Cup team. Of course, there were others who contributed as well, specifically Attila Balazs. It would be Fucsovics and Balazs who were picked to play all five ties against Russia in the World Group playoffs this past week.

One Man Gang – Magnificent Marton
Though enjoying home court advantage, the Hungarians still looked overmatched. The Russian team was young, eager and talented. Their oldest player was just 21 years old. All three of Russia’s top players were ranked in the top sixty-one in the world. Conversely, the Hungarians did not have any players in the top 100. What the Hungarians did have on their side was years of experience. They also had Fucsovics who came into the tie having won his 12 of his last 13 Davis Cup matches. He had single handedly put the team on his shoulders in an upset win over Slovakia back in February. Since that time he had slipped into (and back out of) the top 100 for the first time ever. He was playing well coming into the tie, as was his countryman Attila Balazs. Nevertheless, no one thought the Hungarian team capable of beating Russia and for good reason, Hungary had lost to Russia (or the Soviet Union) all six times they faced off in the Davis Cup.

A dynamic doubles duo - Marton Fucsovics & Attila Balazs

A dynamic doubles duo – Marton Fucsovics & Attila Balazs

This time would be different. The Hungarians had several advantages, not only were they playing at home, but they chose to play the tie on slow red clay. Both Fucsovics and Balazs had played the week before on the surface at a challenger in Genoa, Italy. While Andrey Rubelev and Karen Khachanov, Russia’s two top players, had been playing in the United States on hard courts for their last several tournaments. Experience was also a decisive factor in the outcome. The 19-year old Rubelev had never played a Davis Cup match before on red clay. Between the two of them, Fucsovics and Balazs had played three times as many ties The surface advantage coupled with an edge in experience for Hungary can hardly be overstated. They needed all the help they could get to overcome the raw talent of the Russians.  Fucsovics did just this in the first tie. He raced out to a two sets to love lead over the much higher ranked Rubelev. He then hung on to win the fifth set. This victory was crucial because Attila Balazs was unable to eke out a victory over Khachanov. With the match tied at a set apiece, a long and tense third set tiebreaker proved decisive when Khachanov won it 14 – 12. He then easily closed out the match 6-1 in the fourth set.

Brilliance In Budapest – Overcoming The Odds…And Fatigue
Both the victorious Fucsovics and the defeated Balazs looked like to be physically exhausted after the first day. Fatigue was an issue since both men were slated to play every match in the tie. If Hungary lost the doubles, it was likely that a 1 – 2 deficit would be too much to overcome. Fucsovics and Balazs did not let the situation come to that. They played a splendid match, returning serve much better than their Russian foes to win in straight sets. The victory gave Hungary two chances to win the tie on the third and final day. Their best opportunity would come in the fourth rubber as Fucsovics faced Karen Khachanov. Though Khachanov was the highest ranked player on either team at #32, he had struggled in Davis Cup play, with a less than stellar 2-3 record in singles. This, along with Fucsovics form, was enough to give the Hungarians a realistic chance of an improbable victory.

The moment of glory - Marton Fucsovics celebrates winning the final point for Hungary

The moment of glory – Marton Fucsovics celebrates winning the final point for Hungary

Fucsovics did the best thing he possibly could by starting the match strong, winning the first set 7-5. Uniquely, he won more points on his second serve than his first. He also returned well enough to gain four break points, two of which he converted. His fast start whipped the crowd into a frenzy which was only matched by the biting, windy conditions that beset the Kopazsi Dam facility in Budapest. Fucsovics continued to play at the highest level as he took the next two sets and match. Hungary was finally  through to the World Group. Twenty-one years of futility and frustration evaporated in a matter of moments. The Hungarians had done the unexpected and in the process put their nation back on the international tennis map. Can they continue their winning ways in the 2018 World Group? It is improbable, but not impossible. Led by the rise of Marton Fucsovics as a Davis Cup stalwart, Hungary’s play since 2014 has exceeded all expectations. Whether or not their ascension continues largely depends on the play of Fucsovics.

Zoo Station – Berlin: In Search Of The Laughing Gas

In the winter of 1992 a friend of mine was listening to music at an ear splitting level in a parking lot at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, North Carolina. He said to me, “you have got to hear this song”. According to him, there was nothing else like it. That song was the opening track from U2’s newest album. What I heard next was not the band that had become world famous for the Joshua Tree album and political anthems such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year’s Day. Instead, bursting from the speakers was a surge of sonic post-modernism, a euphoric eclecticism quite unlike anything I had ever heard before or since. The song was “Zoo Station”, a head trip of decadent giddiness. I did not realize it at the time, but this was the sound of Berlin on the cusp of a massive transformation channeled through U2. For me, the song captured the essence of Eastern and Western Europe colliding into a convergence. One world being consumed by another and in the process creating something entirely new. The song turned into a soundtrack of the early 90’s for me. Fifteen years later I went to Berlin, in search of the place that had inspired the song, a trip to the Zoo Station.

Transformation - U2's Achtung Baby

Transformation – U2’s Achtung Baby (Credit: Wikipedia)

By Faith Rather Than Hope – Breaking Into One
Berlin was the pivot point on which the entire world turned for much of the Cold War before the inexplicable happened as communism collapsed. The wall built to protect it came crashing down. Berlin was suddenly forced into another reinvention of itself. The moody and dark crucible of the east-west division slowly morphed into the epicenter of an optimistic, united Europe. That transition though was fraught with anxiety. Into this context stepped U2, a rock band struggling with its own transformation, from a wholesome, earnest, super serious group into whatever they could dream up. U2 came to Berlin looking for inspiration, what they found was a city much like the band, struggling through an identity crisis. U2 was looking for inspiration in a city beset by a gloomy, gray winter. The band’s mood was worse than the thick, heavy skies which loomed over the city. Uncertainty clouded everything.

The band was nearing the point of a breakup, with lead singer Bono and guitarist the Edge pushing hard to change the band’s sound with industrial and dance inspired grooves. They were pitted against the more traditional U2 sound preferred by bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. For months they suffered through recording sessions in the crumbling Hansa Ton studios, a place that had once been a Nazi ballroom, then was later used as creative haunts for the musical heroics of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Now it was little more than a half-dilapidated recording studio with a glorious past and uncertain future. It was there that the band came close to dissolving. By faith more than hope, they managed to stumble upon a moment of artistic brilliance. It came in the form of “One”, a song about breaking up that paradoxically brought the band back together. From that moment onward, the band’s creative spirits soared, the upshot was the commercially and critically successful album “Achtung Baby”. And the first song on that album was the one that drew me all the way from a community college parking lot in the foothills of North Carolina to the underground of Berlin. It took me a decade and a half before I finally arrived at the Zoo Station.

Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station

Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station (Credit: Arne Huckelheim)

Primal Instincts – A Trip To The Zoo
The actual Zoo Station referenced in U2’s song is officially known as the Berlin Zoologischer Garten Railway Station. Found in the district of Charlottenburg, the station gets its name from the nearby Berlin Zoo. Bono, U2’s vocalist, was inspired by a surreal tale involving the zoo during World War II. Due to bomb damage, the animals were freed from their confinement and wandered around the ruined city. Giraffes, lions, zebras and a plethora of other exotic creatures were seen on the streets. The Zoo Station of the song deals with human rather than animal instincts. These instincts happen to be primal ones. During the Cold War, Zoologischer Garten was West Berlin’s Main Railway Station, with the only line going into and out of communist East Berlin. A point of transition, where those coming from a strictly controlled environment were confronted with western decadence. The station was known for its seedy atmosphere, both inside and out. Drug dealers, prostitutes and pick pockets were among the various hangers-on that could be found loitering around the station. It was a place where all the forms of human behavior were on display.

On my first full day in Berlin, I made my way by U-Bahn to the station. Lines into the station included the U2. My expectation level rose in anticipation of what I might find there, perhaps heroin addicts strung out in the station’s bowels, beggars accosting innocents with a litany of mad sayings or transsexual harlots trolling vacant corridors. My pulse level rose as my train arrived at the station. I was, as the song said, “ready for the laughing gas”, that burst of otherworldly energy that comes from giving oneself over to dark fantasies. I imagined stepping back in time to the decadence of something approximating 1920’s era Weimar Berlin, a fairytale-esque world filled with the sultry and sordid.  I got off the train and what did I see? A world of normalcy. The Zoo Station was filled with the usual hustle and bustle that could be found at most any metro station in a large European city. People hurrying between trains or standing impatiently on station platforms. Heading up to the surface I thought things might get a bit more interesting. I was disappointed to find hardly anything of interest. The station itself showed few signs of its former dynamism. There was no tension or transients, nothing but coffee shops, newsstands and people headed in hundreds of different directions.

Station for the U2 line at Zoologischer Garten

Station for the U2 line at Zoologischer Garten (Credit: calflier001)

Lost In Transit – Outside The Zoo
The truth of the matter was that Zoo Station had lost almost all of its former prominence. First, after the wall crumbled. Then later, with the opening of the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof in 2006. The seedy, surrealistic station that U2 had channeled through their song had long since vanished. The animals had all wandered away from the zoo. Physically the station still existed, but the feeling was lost. The only way to recapture a semblance of it was by listening to the song, but its lyrics were a forceful reminder why that feeling could never be recaptured:

Time is a train
Makes the future the past
Leaves you standing in the station
Your face pressed up against the glass



Collecting Counties In Hungary – Everywhere & Nowhere: A First Finale To Nograd County (Part One)

Whenever I mention to someone that I love traveling in Hungary, the inevitable question arises, “Where have you been?” They almost immediately provide an answer before I can speak. “Budapest?” This is likely the only place in the country they know because the city is world famous for its beauty and culture. My stock reply these days is, “I have been everywhere.” This usually elicits dubious looks, as though I am exaggerating. To a certain extent I am. No one could possibly say that they have been everywhere in Hungary. It would take years to travel to the hundreds of small villages that dot the countryside, traverse the endless plains that spread out on either side of the Danube or hike through all the nooks and crannies in the hills to the north. “Everywhere” in Hungary for me, means every county. I am the proud member of an exclusive club, a foreigner and an American no less, who has been to every county in the country. This has become my badge of travel honor, being a county collector so to speak. A Hungarian friend of mine who travels widely thinks this kind of collecting is absurd and pointless. I beg to differ.

Where the road goes - the real Hungary

Where the road goes – the real Hungary

More Than Lines On A Map – Crossing Invisible Borders
My interest in counties began when I was a teenager. In eighth grade Social Studies class, the teacher required us to memorize all one-hundred counties in our home state of North Carolina. This was not easy. I spent many days labeling a map and then trying to spell words such as Perquimans and Pasquotank. It was a great way to learn geography and develop muscle memory. It was not until years later that I realized this might have stimulated an affinity for collecting counties. It started in of all places Wyoming. After several trips passing through the state I realized that I had been in every county except for two. Getting those final two required several hundred miles of driving, but I soon checked them off the list. Later I did the same thing in Montana. It only took me fifteen years and thousands of miles of driving. Then it was on to North Dakota. Why North Dakota? For no better reason other than because I could.

It was around this time that I began to travel to Hungary. After multiple trips, I suddenly realized that I lacked only one of the nineteen counties or megye as they are called in the Magyar language. The idea excited me to no end. How many foreigners could actually say they had been to every county in Hungary? I never asked the corollary question of, “Why would anyone care how many counties a person had visited in Hungary? Passion, like love, causes blindness. On the surface, my fixation for seeking out and crossing an arbitrary administrative boundary made little sense. These were just lines on a map. Counties came and went in Hungary depending upon both the internal and external political situation.

Mapquest - the 19 counties of Hungary

Mapquest – the 19 counties of Hungary

Radical Realignments – Trains, Two Lanes & Automobiles
In the 20th century, boundaries for Hungary’s counties had been redrawn on multiple occasions. The most radical realignment took place following the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, with the territories of Transylvania, Croatia/Slavonia, Upper Hungary (present day southern Slovakia) and Lower Hungary (present-day Northern Serbia) severed from the mother country. The number of counties dropped from 64 to 34. Then in 1949, this number was reduced again, to the current number of nineteen. Nineteen counties were not very many to visit, but it was still going to be difficult since Hungary was thousands of miles and an ocean away from my home. Though Hungary is not a very big country – approximately the size of Indiana – it is still large enough that going to every county was quite an undertaking. Fortunately, after five trips I had inadvertently covered large swaths of the country. The reason for this was two-fold, a love of train travel and to visit castles.

To my mind, riding a train almost anywhere in Hungary is always well worth the experience. The rail network radiates outward in every direction from Budapest. I took advantage of it to take day trips everywhere from Szeged to Sopron and points in between. Castles were also scattered throughout the countryside. Sometimes this meant a trip partly by train and partly by bus, such as to Nadasladany in Fejer County. Many castles, especially 18th and 19th century ones were on large estates deep in the countryside. This meant going to out of the way places. I had traveled impulsively to the sites that piqued my interest, with no master plan to collect counties. Somehow I ended up just one county short of having all nineteen. The solution to collecting the final county was to travel there by car. Hungary has plenty of cars, but would never be called a car culture, incomes are modest and public transport is readily available in even the tiniest of villages. Roads in Hungary are generally pretty good, especially the main highways and I was going to make use of them to visit Nograd County, a land of hills and small mountains in the northern part of the country.

Remote & beautiful - Nograd County in northern Hungary

Remote & beautiful – Nograd County in northern Hungary

Nograd – The Pass Though County
Nograd County is the smallest of Hungary’s nineteen counties and has only two percent of the nation’s population. It is the antithesis of stereotypical Hungary, there is hardly any agricultural land. Instead, it is heavily forested. Tourism is relatively undeveloped. The two main exceptions are old ruined castles from the late Middle Ages piled atop many of the hills and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Holloko village, which holds the finest examples of vernacular architecture in the country. Though Nograd County is really not that far from Budapest, the area has never been easily accessible due to the rugged topography. It was little wonder that this was the final county for me to collect. There was little reason to visit or even pass through unless one was traveling to Slovakia. My plan was to visit Somosko Castle right on the Hungary-Slovakia border. It would be the grand finale for me to celebrate visiting the final county. At least that is what I imagined. The reality turned out to be different.

Click here: Collecting The Counties Of Historic Hungary – Vanished Traces: Entering The Kingdom (Part Two)