A Breed Apart – The Hungarian Vizslas of Edgemont South Dakota: Going To The Dogs

According to a website that references U.S. census records in calculating the ethnicity of cities and towns in the United States, the most Hungarian place in South Dakota is Selby, a small town located just east of the Missouri River in the north part of the state. In case you did not know, South Dakota has never been known as a hotbed of Magyar immigration. That makes Selby something of an anomaly. Supposedly 2.88% of the town’s residents claim direct Hungarian descent. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it is more than twice the percentage of any other town in the state.

My own experience with the town did not reveal any signs of Hungarians. I traveled through Selby twelve years ago, during the dead of winter, only stopping to top off the gas tank. The temperature was hovering in the single digits and few people were around. It would have been an unlikely occurrence to meet any Hungarians there, almost as unlikely as Selby having the highest proportion of ethnic Hungarians of any town in South Dakota. I have no idea why a handful of Hungarians settled in the area, but this little piece of trivia I came across online lodged itself in my memory. Later, I wondered if it was true, especially after visiting another rural area in South Dakota. This is where I discovered another settlement with a modest proportion of Hungarians. The number and type of Hungarians turned out to a surprise, especially considering the location.

Ready For Action - A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose

Ready For Action – A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose (Credit: Tito Hentschel)

Dogged Existence – Living On The Edge
Edgemont, South Dakota lies on the edge of the southern Black Hills in the extreme southwestern part of the state. It is a forlorn town not on the way to anywhere other than equally remote parts of eastern Wyoming. Edgemont is little more than a service center for the ranches spread out across a vast area beyond the town limits. The town has been bleeding population for years and looks the part, with plenty of abandoned buildings in the central business district. The young leave, birth rates decline, the remaining population tends toward the elderly. On the surface, this seems to be about the only thing Edgemont has in common with anywhere in Hungary. The rural areas in both places are slowing dying off. Edgemont can hardly afford to lose any citizens either in the town or surrounding countryside.

From what I have seen there is only one stable population group in the area. Just 15 minutes north of town, tucked away where the Black Hills begin to rise, is a community consisting entirely of Hungarians and Germans. One which manages to replenish itself year after year. Their home can be found off a dirt road bordered by sandstone and intermittent pine forest. This community lives without the worries or stress found in more populated locales. What is the secret to their success? It is quite simple, the community has gone to the dogs. That is because two distinct breeds call the area home, they are Hungarian Vizslas and German Weimaraners sired at Blue Creek Kennels. The Vizslas sometimes number as many as twenty. If we divide 20 by the latest population figure of 711 for Edgemont, then that means the Vizslas are 2.8% of the population of Edgemont. That puts them on equal footing with those of ethnic Hungarian descent in Selby. And unlike Hungarians in Selby, the Vizslas of Edgemont are pure breeds with a blood line uncorrupted by interbreeding.

Pick of the Litter - Blue Creek Kennel

Pick of the Litter – Blue Creek Kennel (Credit: Blue Creek Kennel)

Pointed In The Right Direction – On The Hunt For Vizslas
Of course, Vizslas are not people, but they are certainly Hungarian. The Vizsla has become synonymous with Hungary and vice versa. It is their homeland, from where they first came to prominence and then spread around the world. They have also become a favorite breed of those searching for the finest hunting dogs in the world. Vizslas are pointer dogs valued for their keen instincts which make them masters at locating prey. They were prized by Hungarian aristocrats for their prowess on hunts and have lost none of that over the centuries. These same qualities are still valued by hunters all over Europe and North America today. They also make excellent companion dogs, known for their calm temperament and loyalty, the Vizsla is now as much a family as it is a hunting dog. Such traits convinced me and my wife to purchase a Vizsla from their newest home away from Hungary just outside of Edgemont.

It only took us five minutes to select the one we felt would be right for us. Standing affectionately, but calmly behind several other Vizslas leaping and lunging forward, was an eight month old pup with the stature and grace befitting one of the most regal dogs in the world. This Vizsla was soon in our arms and stole our hearts. We named him Tisza, after the great river of eastern Hungary. The river can never flow as fast as he can run. Tisza, like other Vizslas, can run at speeds up to 40 mph (64 kph). His personality turned out to be just as exuberant as his energy level. It took him no time to become a beloved member of our family, a constant reminder of the proud and refined nature of this most beloved Hungarian breed.

Tisza the Vizsla - A Hungarian Icon

Tisza the Vizsla – A Hungarian Icon

Something Of A Miracle – Return Of The Vizslas
The fact that Tisza and other Vizslas can be found in South Dakota is somewhat surprising, especially in a place as remote as the area around Edgemont. The fact that Vizslas can be found anywhere in the world today is downright astonishing. They are something of a miracle, brought back from near extinction in the mid-20th century. Hungary’s calamitous 20th century brought about the end of its aristocracy which had done so much to raise Vizslas to prominence. Many Vizslas suffered the same fate as their masters, but some managed to escape. They were carried away from communist Hungary by their owners, continuing their history which starts with documentation all the back to the late Middle Ages and continues today in such far flung areas as the American Great Plains. The Vizsla lives on both in the present and past.

Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

For such a small nation the Czech Republic certainly has grand designs, nowhere more so than in Prague. It is here where Czech greatness is affirmed in architecture, culture and history. For most, the apogee takes place at Prague Castle and the surrounding Castle District (Hradcany). I must admit to being rather awestruck by Castle Hill, to me this was where a fairy tale met the massive, symbolized by such disparate structural elements as the Golden Lane and St. Vitus Cathedral. A world in miniature, a world in monumental, seamlessly integrated to the point that everything in the Castle District looks to have sprung as if by magic from a master plan. I have seen few places so impressive. It left me asking one particular question following my visit: After this, now what?

The Castle District provides all a traveler, historian or architectural buff could ever want. Everything else in Prague seems beneath it, both literally and figuratively. The thought of this depressed me. It informed a sense of hopelessness that the rest of Prague would forever fail to live up to the Castle District’s exalted standards. That feeling would turn out to be wrong, but it was not any of Prague’s most popular places (Old Town Square, Wenceslaus Square, Charles Bridge) that managed to defeat this great depression festering inside of me. Instead it was the last place I went in the city, on my final day.

Vysehrad as seen from the Vltava River

Vysehrad as seen from the Vltava River (Credit: cSJu)

Scaling The Walls – The Highest Citadel
The ancient citadel of Vysehrad or at least what’s left of it sits high above the Vltava River. This was to be my final destination in Prague as I set out on foot from the guest house. It was my last afternoon in the city and I was hoping to see something memorable. Just getting to the citadel required quite a bit of legwork as I had to make my way up to the craggy rock outcropping it sits atop. Not long thereafter I realized why Vysehrad means “High Castle”. I spent a fair amount of time huffing and puffing my way up to one of its many entrances. Geographically, Vysehrad holds a commanding position over the right bank of the Vltava. On that side of the fortress, it is almost a sheer drop down to the river. The side from which I approached it was nothing to scoff at either. I could not imagine an army trying to make this approach which required walking at a steeply inclined angle for many minutes.

Against well-armed defenders, such an approach would have been suicidal. Conversely, an approach from the riverside was impossible.  I would later discover to my surprise that the fortress was not impregnable, far from it. During the first half of the 15th century it was ransacked twice and left in ruin. The Leopold Gate was my point of entry to the Vysehrad Narodni Kulturni Pamatka (Vysehrad National Cultural Park). The fortress complex, as it stands today, is almost entirely the product of reconstruction work done during the Baroque era of the 18th century, but Vysehrad’s history goes all the way back to the earliest days of Slavic settlement in the area. Much of this time, which predates the 10th century, is shrouded in mystery and obscured by myth. The upshot, Vysehrad is rich in both folkloric and historical connotations.

A portal to a deep past - The Leopold Gate at Vysehrad

A portal to a deep past – The Leopold Gate at Vysehrad

Abundant Myths, Foundational Facts – The Royal Way
Legend says that a tribal leader by the name of Krak built a fortress in the area as early as the 7th century. One of his daughters, Libuse, envisioned that a great city would sprout from this location. Libuse went on to wed a ploughman by the name of Premysl. He then became king, while Libuse founded Prague. This was the legendary beginnings of the Premyslid Dynasty. The truth about Vysehrad is a bit more benign. It was likely settled prior to the year 1000 AD. A fortified town came to occupy the crag during the 11th century. At one point, the seat of Royal Power was moved away from Castle Hill and to Vysehrad by Vratislaus II, the first King of Bohemia. This led to a thorough reconstruction of the area, which included the development of a palatial complex. In 1140 the seat of power went back to Castle Hill where it would stay. The next major development atop Vysehrad occurred under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Charles was directly related to the Premyslid Dynasty on his mother’s side, as such he wanted to create a tangible connection between Vysehrad and the Czech people.

Charles decreed that the royal coronation would begin from Vysehrad and terminate three kilometers away on Castle Hill. He also expanded the fortifications, added a new gate and connected its walls with the New Town (Nove Mesto), which Charles had founded. Existing palace complexes were improved and the Gothic church of St. Peter and Paul was upgraded. This period was truly a Golden Age for Vysehrad, a period when it was part of a glorious present that maintained an integral link to a mysterious past. The abundant myths concerning its earliest history provided a foundation upon which the Czech people could stake their claim to the area. It appealed to ethnic pride and eventually to national greatness. Hardly anything from the period of Charles’ rule still stood at Vysehrad. I should have been disappointed, but the setting was so spectacular that I spent much of my visit marveling at the wonderful views.

Looking back toward the Castle District from Vysehrad

Looking back toward the Castle District from Vysehrad

Looming Threat– In The Shadow Of Castle Hill
Even after a thousand years of change it was easy to see why Vysehrad held a special place in Czech history. Impressive and intimidating were the two words which came into my mind. The views from the walls looking up and down the Vltava were quite impressive. They were also intimidating. The dark waters of the river made a wide sweep below the fortress, flowing wide and languid toward the Old Town. In the distance I could see the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral in the Castle District silhouetted beneath a bright blue, early spring sky. It was only fitting that one of Castle District’s main attractions should be seen looming in the distance. From a historical standpoint, the Castle District had been Vysehrad’s main competition for the epicenter of Prague.  The Castle District may have won that battle, but Vysehrad held its own prominent place in the Czech pantheon, nowhere more so then in and around the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Click here for: In The Shadow Of Giants – Vysehrad: The Soul Of A Nation

Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

The Mayerling Incident was a tabloid ready controversy filled with rampant speculation, salacious gossip, bizarre rumors of ridiculous conspiracies and mysterious cover-ups. Fact and fiction were interwoven to the point that they became inseparable. The powers that be changed their story multiple times. Something akin to an approximation of the truth slowly came to light. The press in Austria was heavily censored, but further west in France and Great Britain speculation flowed freely, some of this crossed back over the border into Austria. The entire drama threatened to undermine an already weakened and rickety monarchy that was already having enough trouble just trying to deal with social and technological changes. Someone would have to take the blame for this self-inflicted debacle and it would not be the monarchy. Rudolf’s femme fatale never stood a chance.

United by fate - Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

United by fate – Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

Obscured By Spiritualism – Underwhelmed By The Unresolved
The court of official propaganda and public opinion was not kind to Mary Vetsera. She was viewed as a willing accomplice of a mentally troubled Rudolf. Her age did not help matters. She was thirteen years younger than Rudolf, a mere teenager who lacked the emotional maturity to understand what she was getting herself into. Her mother had sought fame in the highest aristocratic social circles for a family that were newcomers on the Viennese social scene. Their background in the near east limited just how far the family might climb, but Mary would end up showing just how far they could fall. Her mother was not allowed to attend the daughter’s funeral. Mary was buried alone at a spot the Crown Prince had selected for the two of them. Instead, Rudolf ended up in the Imperial Crypt, but only after officialdom ensured that his suicide was ruled as the result of mental problems.

As for the Mayerling hunting lodge, it was transformed into a Carmelite Convent where nuns could eternally pray for Rudolf’s soul. A very odd thing to do to at a murder-suicide site. While the gesture was heartfelt – Franz Josef wept at the convent’s dedication – such a transformation was incongruous at best, insincere at worst. This was the main reason I found the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling to be one of the most underwhelming historical places I have visited. My suspicion was that there had been a tacit agreement to keep the exact truth of what happened obscured by spiritualism. Thus, it was decided to create something of a memorial and leave it at that. The fact that the mystery of Mayerling may or may not have been solved kept interest from visitors such as myself high. It drew me and thousands of others to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling each year.  Probably not what the Habsburg authorities had in mind.

Tragic Destiny - Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident

Tragic Destiny – Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident (Credit Schuhmann – Bundesmobilienverwaltung MD 065518)

A Shattering Effect – From Debilitation To Destabilization
Today a very strict order of nuns resides at the Jagdschloss in relative seclusion. The chapel now stands in the spot where the main actions of the incident occurred or so I was told. The facts from the investigation of what happened that day were sealed and then destroyed by decree of Emperor Franz Joseph. His wife Elisabeth is said to have never recovered from her son’s death. The same has been said of the Emperor. The royal couple did stay married, though they grew further apart. Mayerling had a shattering effect on the future course of the Empire and the 20th century. Rudolf’s replacement as heir to the throne was none other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who would have his own tragic destiny.

As time passed after the murder-suicide at Mayerling, Rudolf, the once Crown Prince of Austria gained a reputation as a tragic figure whose death changed history for the worse. This was predicated on the assumption that if Rudolf had lived long enough to become emperor he would have reformed Austria-Hungary and the monarchy would have had a better chance of survival. Such an idea overlooks the fact that Rudolf’s health was already in rapid decline at the time of his suicide mainly due to venereal disease. He had contracted either gonorrhea or syphilis from his endless conquests of women. The disease only served to intensify a nervous condition that had plagued him throughout his adult life. He had also suffered from debilitating migraine headaches for several years.  Only thirty years old when he died, photos taken in the months before then showed Rudolf as a prematurely aged man.

Imperial Crypt - Crown Prince Rudolf's coffin lies to the right of his parents' coffins

Imperial Crypt – Crown Prince Rudolf’s coffin lies to the right of his parents’ coffins (Credit Bwag)

Resting On Turmoil – The Extent Of One Man’s Sorrow
The Crown Prince had been trying to alleviate his various maladies with morphine and heavy drinking. Those only served to have the opposite effect on his condition. In addition to his physical ailments, Rudolf’s marriage was a disaster. His wife, Crown Princess Stephanie of Belgium, was sterile because he had transmitted venereal disease to her. He did not find her physically or psychologically attractive, the two were a poor match. Their relationship only grew worse as the years went on. Each lived an increasingly separate existence. By the start of 1889, Rudolf was a man living on the edge. He had already tried to get Princess Stephanie involved in a lover’s suicide pact. She demurred. He did the same with one of his mistresses, an ex-singer, by the name of Mizzi Kaspar, who dutifully reported it to the police. The authorities failed to report this to either the Emperor or Empress. The upshot of all this was that Rudolf’s parents failed to realize the extent of Rudolf’s woes.

Rudolf would likely have died long before having the chance to assume the throne. Franz Josef did not die until 1916, twenty-seven years after the Mayerling incident occurred. By that time Rudolf would have been 57. There is only a very slim chance that he would have lived a quarter century longer suffering so badly from disease. Rudolf probably realized his condition would continue to deteriorate. The future for him looked bleak, both physically and politically. As for the latter, he had been frozen out of all decision making in the empire. He was considered untrustworthy, impulsive and at times had been downright subversive. Publishing his views in the liberal press under barely disguised fronts. His father would not hear of an annulment to Rudolf’s marriage. His mother, Empress Elisabeth, while close in temperament to her son, was consumed with her own mental and physical problems. It is little wonder that Rudolf ended his life, to have done it in such sensational fashion led to speculation that still continues right up through today.  Mayerling’s fame will forever rest on Rudolf’s turmoil.

Click here for: Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

His power to evoke passion was legendary. He could send women swooning just by running his fingers across the ivory keys of a piano. The world fell to its feet in the presence of his musical powers. He created, composed and conjured entirely new worlds of sound from multitudes of magnificent keystrokes. Females were especially prone to his mysterious musical powers. Because of this, he fell in and out of romance. In even greater numbers, he fell in and out of bed. Fathering any number of children with true loves and midnight mistresses. Because of his reputation for romances, both sweeping and fleeting, it is hard to imagine the Hungarian musical impresario, Franz Liszt, ever settling down in marriage. He never quite did, but he was willing to try. When the opportunity arose to marry a countess, Liszt was more than willing to oblige.

Franz Liszt - The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Franz Liszt – The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Reverence, Rudeness & Respect – Prestigious Possibility
Among the many personality traits of Franz Liszt, one of the more pronounced was his snobbery. Like most snobs, the one thing he could never stomach was others who thought they were better than him. There is nothing a snob abhors more than another snob. Liszt could not stand to be looked down upon due to the simple fact that he himself looked down on the world. His musical ability gave him an exalted position both socially and culturally. For Liszt, it was normal to be treated with the utmost adoration. This was not so much a privilege, as it was his right. Thus, if anyone in the aristocracy or royalty (the elite classes of Europe during the 19th century) did not show him the proper respect, Liszt would reciprocate with rudeness. Conversely, when treated with the proper reverence, Liszt could be gracious, humble and kind. One of Liszt’s great ambitions in life was to climb the social ladder. His musical talent opened the world of aristocracy up to him. He most often played for audiences filled with the finest aristocrats in Europe. During his concert tours he met large numbers of princes and princesses. It was the latter that offered him not only the romance he craved, but also the prestigious possibility of marriage into high society.

On a concert tour in 1847 Liszt met the Polish noblewoman Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein while performing in Kiev. The Countess lived in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire. Her wealth was beyond belief. She owned multiple estates with thousands of serfs working the land. The Countess was something of a paradox. She enjoyed elite social status while at the same time being fanatically religious. The Countess wrote long winded books on religious subjects. Her literary output was lengthy in the extreme, with works that would put War and Peace to shame for their sheer volume of words. Such traits attracted Liszt to her. The Countess’ religious fervor was matched by his own. While the Countess’ social standing appealed to Liszt’s snobbishness. The Countess though, was much more to Liszt than just one of his many mistresses. He would eventually become an abbe (Catholic clergyman) in the Catholic Church. Their kindred religious spirits led to an unlikely romance between the two. By all accounts the Countess was unattractive, homely and serious minded. A sort of uber wealthy plain jane of Russian Ukraine. Liszt hardly cared because of her aristocratic background. There was only one problem, the Countess was married.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 - The year she met Liszt

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 – The year she met Liszt

Life With Liszt – A High Price To Pay
The Countess’ husband was a Russian military officer who went by the exquisite name of Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg. They had one child, a daughter, but the couple were soon living apart. It was a marriage for the sake of titles, prestige and wealth. Love was not a consideration. The Countess spent years trying to get a divorce from Prince Nikolaus. She began living with Liszt in Weimar a year after they met. After two face-to-face meetings with the pope, she nearly succeeded. On October 22, 1861, the Countess and Liszt were due to be married in Rome. Liszt arrived the night before the wedding fully expecting to get married for the first time. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on his 50th birthday. It would never happen. Intervention by The Countess’ husband and the Russian Tsar stopped the marriage. The Russian government had impounded her estates.

If the Countess had gone through with the marriage, she would have lost a fortune. Her lone child, a daughter by Prince Nikolaus, would have had her marriage prospects irreparably damaged. Thus, the marriage failed. The Countess and Liszt eventually grew apart. She was disgusted by his numerous affairs. He was an inveterate womanizer who took the Countess’ love for granted. She eventually grew fed up and moved to Rome. What Liszt was doing with the Countess says much more about him than it does her. Liszt longed for adulation, an aristocratic title would have been another stepping stone to greater prestige. It never happened, but it did not stop him from trying. For the Countess, Liszt was like a dream that was slowly defeated by reality. The Countess was unique though. Her religious fervor knew no bounds. She was loyal to Liszt and that loyalty came at an astronomical price. She squandered much of her riches for the pursuit of passion and a spiritual kinship.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Romance & Religion – Kindred Spirits
In the end, a life together for Liszt and the Countess was not meant to be. After the attempt at marriage failed, the Countess became just another woman for Liszt in an unending succession of them. A few he loved, most he did not. The love that had existed between the two of them faded. In her post-Liszt life, the Countess spent years writing religious tomes. Her magnum opus was a 24-volume work, Exterior Causes of the Interior Weakness of the Church. Not exactly a page turner. It had the added drawback that on average each volume was over a thousand pages in length. No one remembers these books. For that matter, no one remembers the Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein except for the romance and religion she shared with the famous Franz Liszt.

Click here for: A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad

I liked Sopron so much that for the second day in a row I took to the surrounding countryside for a day trip. The attraction of Koszeg was such that I could not resist. When a place is given the title “Jewel Box of Hungary” it deserves a visit. From the sound of it, Koszeg was what Hungary would have been without World Wars and communism. That is if the country had been left to develop on its own without foreign interference. Of course, every European country could say the same thing, but in Hungary there was a sense that history had been unkind to it. That Hungary’s greatness had been thwarted by foreign interlopers. As for Koszeg, it was said to have largely escaped wartime damage. That would turn out to be only half true, depending on what war was being referenced. I would discover the damage from World War II was more human than structural, whereas the damage from the Ottoman Turks was both.

Before making these discoveries I first had to find my way to Koszeg. By train this was not as simple as the map made it look. There was not a direct line by rail between Sopron and Koszeg, though the latter was just 45 kilometers south of the former. The problem was that Austria was in the way. Thus, I would first have to travel to Szombathely by train and then take a short branch line to Koszeg. I found this to be an annoyance. That was until I arrived at Szombathely, where I was surprised and delighted by the train that would take me to Koszeg. The train only consisted of two cars, looking more like an elongated bus on rails. Covered in yellow paint, with a few green markings, the cars were eye catching and lively looking. The branch line to Koszeg was worth it just for the ride on this little train.

Koszeg - Jurisics ter in the foreground

Koszeg – Jurisics ter in the foreground

The Last Hold Outs – A Commander & A Castle
After arriving at the railway station in Koszeg I discovered it was a bit of a walk to the town center. When I arrived in Koszeg’s Old Town I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was so colorful and vibrant that I could almost taste it. The Renaissance and Baroque era buildings were coated in a rich array of colors that made the cityscape look good enough to eat. There was architectural eye candy on offer throughout the cobbled squares and streets. The heart of quaint old Koszeg was Jurisics ter (Jurisics Square). That was a name that would soon become familiar to me. Jurisics would forever be associated with Koszeg, albeit a very different one from the marvelously atmospheric town that exists today. It was Nikola Jurisics who not only saved Koszeg from the Ottoman Turkish threat, but some would also argue Vienna. For his efforts, the castle had been named after him.

Of all the buildings worth seeing in Koszeg, Jurisics Var (Jurisics Castle) was one of the least impressive. Remnants of its old walls were so busted and battered that they did not look particularly evocative of any great defensive work. Behind them stood the inner castle, a group of towers and buildings covered in a brownish-red coat of color that appeared a little too refined for my taste. Meanwhile the entryway looked like the run up to a large inn. It was hard to imagine this was the same castle that had resisted nineteen assaults by the Ottoman army of Sultan Suleiman. Truth be told, the present-day castle was only a rough approximation of what had stood on the site during the siege of 1532. Most of that castle had been consumed by a great fire in 1777. The town had honored its history by having the castle reconstructed.

Nikola Jurisics statue - Entrance to Jurisics Castle

Nikola Jurisics statue – Entrance to Jurisics Castle (Credit: Pan Peter 12)

Creation By Destruction – To Do The Impossible
Fire was a recurring theme in the history of Koszeg. The town had been torched several times, more by accident or incident rather than at the hands of foreign foes. The threat of fire was of such concern that smokers incurred large fines. Anyone suspected of arson could be termed a “villain” and sentenced to fifty lashes. Such painful punishments certainly commanded the attention of potential offenders. While fire was a mortal threat, it also helped create the Koszeg which stands today. Disastrous infernos were an opportunity for urban renewal. As a history buff, I would have been interested to see the original wooden and mud caulked houses of medieval Koszeg, but I doubt this would have brought in many tourists. The current townscape was much more pleasing to aesthetic sensibilities, even if much of the architectural history did not reach back any earlier than the 17th century.

It was an earlier aspect of Koszeg’s history that Jurisics Castle recalled, if not in form at least in spirit. This was where Jurisics commanded a force of 700 men facing an Ottoman Army numbering close to a hundred thousand. What ensued was a 25 day siege, that halted the Ottoman movement toward Vienna. From the start Jurisics’ force was close to the point of exhaustion, but somehow held out long enough to exhaust the Ottoman Army’s will to fight. How did such an outmanned and outgunned force manage to hold out against incredible odds? In a word , leadership. Nikola Jurisics was more than a commander, he was a leader. He convinced his ragtag group of defenders – mainly Hungarian peasants – that they could do the impossible. Jurisics and the defenders also got lucky. Heavy rains came at the end of August, which helped persuade the Sultan to withdraw his troops. Thus, the siege of Koszeg may helped save Vienna from the impending Ottoman threat. Paradoxically, Koszeg also saved the Habsburgs at the expense of Hungary. Ottoman rule over much of Hungary solidified in the years after the siege.

The Last Hold Out - Jurisics Castle

The Last Hold Out – Jurisics Castle

Point of Departure – Historical Developments
As for Koszeg it had managed to escape Ottoman occupation. This allowed it to develop more normally, akin to that of Austria rather than Hungary. That development brought in German merchants who spearheaded the economy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet it was also Germans who brought the next wave of destruction to the town. This destruction left the city’s beautiful Old Town untouched. The same could not be said for Koszeg’s small Jewish community. They were not so lucky. I would never have known this, except for a photo I would see in a book many months after my visit. That photo made me look at Koszeg quite differently, specifically its train station, which In 1944 had acted as a point of departure to Auschwitz.

Click here for:  Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

We Must All Die One Day – In Search Of A Saint (Vilmos Alpor Part Two)

I have never understood the fascination with religious saints. The personages I have so often seen portrayed on stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals in Eastern and Central Europe seem like distant figures that belong as much to myth as reality. The fact that I am not Catholic likely plays into my skepticism about saints. I have never spent much time or effort learning about the various saints illuminated in an amazing array of colors on church windows. That is because the stories I have read about most of them seem a bit too fantastical for my taste. For instance, one of the few saints that I am vaguely familiar with is Saint George, largely because I am fond of the story where he slayed the dragon. Of course, I have never seen a dragon, thus I do not take this tale at face value. I doubt many other people do either.

The story is meant to be metaphorical, but Saint George was a real man. Real men do not face dragons, unless it is the product of someone else’s imagination. All that skepticism aside, I must admit that I do have a favorite saint, one that is contrary to the usual imaginings to them. This saint is a man who will not be found on any stained glass windows, whose life was not the stuff legends are made of and who lived not in some mysterious past, but in a modern one that still lurks within living memory. A man who had human rather than mythological characteristics, but whose acts of humanitarianism were a sign of immortality because they lived on, long after he died. That man was the Hungarian Bishop Vilmos Apor.

Morning - Gyor

Morning – Gyor

A Principled Stand – Under No Illusions
World War II brought out the best in Bishop Vilmos Apor, because he was not a man of his time, but a man of all time. He spearheaded courageous efforts to protect those who were marginalized, discriminated against and threatened by German Nazis, Hungarian Fascists and Soviet Communists. All this was done during the darkest years of the early to mid-1940’s. During this time, he spoke out against the extremist ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Communism at great personal risk to himself. He also protested the discriminatory treatment of Jews, going so far as to fight against their deportation from Hungary. Among his many actions, he wrote letters to high government officials telling them they were responsible for the destruction of Hungary’s once vibrant Jewish community.

Bishop Apor was under no illusions about what was happening to the Jews. He had learned from sources about what happened to the Jews deported to Auschwitz’s genocidal chambers. Such vocal protestations were out of step with a Hungarian government that had veered radically to the right and German occupation authorities who were hell bent on exterminating all of Hungary’s Jewish citizens.
For Bishop Apor this principled stand was worth it. He saw it as his duty to advocate for the oppressed. There is no way to quantify how many lives he helped save, but there is little doubt that his efforts resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, surviving the war. His efforts came at the highest cost, because he ended up sacrificing his own life to save others.

A Man With A Mission - Bishop Vilmos Apor

A Man With A Mission – Bishop Vilmos Apor

Sacrifices To Save Life – Forced By Circumstances
The siege of Gyor was short-lived. German forces melted away when faced with the Red Army’s overwhelming superiority in men and material. Bishop Apor was busy tending to the needs of the hundreds he had afforded refuge in the cellars of the Bishop’s Palace in the city’s Belvaros. Refugees hid in these cavernous cellars below his residence, seeking to survive a war that would soon be over, but not soon enough to save all their lives. There was the constant threat of being shot, raped or robbed. Gyor’s beautiful Baroque inspired Belvaros was under assault. No one was safe, not even the most powerful spiritual leader in the region. If he had not been forced by circumstances to stay in Gyor due to the siege, Apor would have been further to the south in the town of Koszeg, where he and several other Catholic leaders had been invited to a “conference” with representatives of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.

The Arrow Cross was upset with Bishop Apor and other Catholic leaders for positions they had taken regarding the defense of what was left of unoccupied Hungary. Bishop Apor wanted the Hungarian government to save the remaining population and cultural treasures of northern Transdanubia by calling off military defense efforts. He knew a fight to the bitter end would be futile. The war in Hungary was lost and continued resistance would only result in getting innocent civilians killed. Bishop Apor’s stance enraged the fanatical leadership of the Arrow Cross. They planned on arresting and imprisoning him. Strangely enough, the conference they had planned might have saved Apor’s life if he had been able to attend because he would not have been in Gyor for the Red Army’s arrival, but that is not what happened.

Vilmos Apor Statue - at entrance to Bishop's Palace in Gyor

Vilmos Apor Statue – at entrance to Bishop’s Palace in Gyor

Insurmountable Odds – At The Point Of Exhaustion
Once the short-lived battle for Gyor ended another battle began, this one was between Hungarian civilians and Red Army soldiers. Any woman or group of women was fair game if they ran into Soviet soldiers. They were searching for women who they would then compel to satisfy their desires. This brought them to the cellars below the Bishop’s Residence where hundreds had taken refuge. Each time soldiers would arrive Bishop Apor would meet them outside the entrance. Some were submissive to his authority, while others were belligerent. Despite a language barrier and the lack of a good translator he was able to send them off without incident. This pattern continued with increasing frequency. Bishop Apor worked around the clock to ensure that no woman under his protection was harmed. This brought him to the point of near exhaustion.

In desperation, he sent representatives to ask the Soviet officers now in charge of Gyor for an armed guard to ensure the continued safety of those housed beneath the Bishop’s Palace. The request was denied. The question now became how long Bishop Apor could continue to negotiate with groups of armed soldiers? Every meeting was fraught with risk, the odds of something going badly wrong became insurmountable. On the morning of Good Friday, Bishop is reported to have told those helping him, “We must all die one day, and one had better sacrifice one’s life for a good cause on a day like this.” That day was fast approaching.

Click here for: With The Greatest Of Courage – The Final Journey (Bishop Vilmos Apor Part 3)

 

The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act Of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One)

Walking around Gyor’s Belvaros I had little idea that World War II had much effect on the city. If I had not come across the name of Bishop Vilmos Apor in a guidebook I would not have given Gyor’s wartime experience much thought. It turned out that Gyor had suffered grave damage from both allied aerial bombings and the excesses of Soviet soldiers. The Germans “defending” the city did not do it any favors either. They were responsible for shelling the Cathedral and Carmelite Church with mortar fire after evacuating across the Raab River. The Hungarians in Gyor were caught in a lethal crossfire. I found all this terrifying and fascinating. Strangely, this history was not to be discovered in any of the city’s museums. Instead, I would have to learn about it through personal research. In a way, that made sense. There were plenty of people still alive who had living memories of the horrors that took place in the now quiet streets and alleyways I walked along.

The citizens of Gyor must have felt that the trauma of World War II was best left in the past. It had certainly been suppressed by the Soviets who occupied and controlled Hungary after the war. They did not want to call attention to the acts of indiscriminate violence by the Red Army during their so called “liberation” of Hungary. There were no major memorials or noticeable monuments for the losses sustained by Hungarian civilians during this time. The most meaningfully evocative monument to the war in Gyor was a tomb, that of Bishop Vilmos Apor. It was to be found in Gyor Cathedral. By the time I arrived at the Cathedral in the late afternoon, it was closed. That was disappointing, but I knew history does not have opening or closing hours, it does not take holidays or weekends off. History requires active pursuit to rediscover the past. It is brought back to life every time it is studied. Thus, began my journey into Gyor’s World War II experience and by extension the death of Vilmos Apor.

Vilmos Apor - Bishop of Gyor

Vilmos Apor – Bishop of Gyor

Guilt By Association & Provocation – The Red Army In Hungary
In the latter half of 1944 the Red Army invaded Eastern Hungary in pursuit of the German Wehrmacht. They were now entering a region that had not previously been part of the Soviet Union. The Soviets considered Hungary a mortal enemy due to its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. The Hungarian Army had joined in the German invasion of Soviet territory and in some instances had mistreated the local population. Such acts would not soon be forgotten. When Soviet soldiers swept westward they saw firsthand how their own countrymen had been terrorized. Villages had been burnt to the ground while grain and livestock was stolen from dirt poor peasants. Countless thousands died of starvation. Scores of Soviet citizens had been summarily executed for the most trivial offenses. The Nazis and their allies cut a wide swath of destruction both in their advance and retreat. This stoked the simmering hatred of Soviet soldiers. They awaited the day when revenge could be exacted on all those who associated themselves with fascism.

This bloodlust would first be unleashed on a defenseless Hungarian civilian population.  Word of mass rapes and bestial brutality towards women of all ages soon filtered out from Nyiregyhaza, the first larger city the Red Army occupied in Hungary. Revenge was the motivating factor behind such behavior. The same violent acts occurred in cities across Hungary as the Red Army continued its westward advance. Hungarian civilians hid or fled to save themselves from the ferocity of Red Army soldiers numb to violence after years of war and fortified with liquid courage by copious amounts of alcohol they discovered while looting. Stories of the atrocities inflicted upon civilians moved fast. People in the farther reaches of western Hungary knew what awaited them if they stayed in their homes. Many had no other choice, but to hope for the best. Just six weeks before the war would come to an end, the Red Army began an attack on Gyor. Within a couple of days German resistance had been defeated. Once the Germans retreated from the city, Hungarian civilians were left to fend for themselves.

Monument of Vilmos Apor at the Bishop's Palace in Gyor

Monument of Vilmos Apor at the Bishop’s Palace in Gyor (Credit: MrPanyGoff)

In Defense Of The Defenseless – Feats Of Courage
On March 28, 1945, just a few days short of Easter, the Red Army occupied Gyor. With no resistance left to oppose them, drunken Soviet soldiers began to prowl the city looking for women. Several times they came to the residence of Bishop Apor, leader of the Diocese of Gyor. In the cellar of his residence, Apor was housing between 300 to 400 women, children and the elderly.  Apor had spent weeks preparing for the coming battle, by procuring food and other essential supplies. He helped protect many able-bodied men from Gyor by sending them to stay at his country residence outside of the city. Meanwhile, he administered help to the most defenseless. The women hiding in the cellar sought to avoid the same fate that had already left tens of thousands of other Hungarian women traumatized or worse. The Bishop’s Palace in Gyor was a good place to hide. Apor was highly respected for his courage. Those sheltered at his residence must have believed that if he could not protect them, then no one could. He was beloved by many in the city, though it was a long way from his birthplace on the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Vilmos Apor was born in the eastern Transylvanian city of Segesvar (present day Sighisoara, Romania) in 1892, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were part of the Hungarian nobility and his father worked as an official in Vienna. The father died when young Vilmos was only six, leaving his mother to raise the family. She was a devout Catholic with an abiding faith, loving but also a disciplinarian. She procured for her son a Jesuit education that eventually moved him toward a career in the priesthood. After ordination he was assigned to the city of Gyula, in southeastern Hungary. Soon after arriving he setup an office that offered protective services to women. In this beginning, lay the seeds of Vilmos’ actions three decades later in Gyor, a city that he was appointed bishop in 1941 and where he would tragically die just four years later.

Click here for: We Must All Die One Day – In Search Of A Saint (Vilmos Apor Part Two)

 

Through Other People’s Eyes – Slovenia’s Soca River Valley: From War To Peace

The two Darja’s, myself and little Alex left Kobarid in search of a battlefield and walked into a scenic wonderland that looked more like a National Park than a former war zone. The Soca River Valley was stunning. It was early spring before the trees had time to blossom. Foliage was sparse, the undergrowth manageable to the eyes. It was thin enough that I could see through much of it, tracing the outlines of ridges and gullies that would have otherwise been hidden in the summer. Mountains began to close in on the river. Crisp, cool air enveloped the valley. The river could be heard and sometimes seen, its presence guiding our path as much as the trail we walked along. Slowly, perceptibly, the terrain became more rugged. The Kobarid Historical Walk was by this point more about nature than war. Relics of the conflagration still straddled the hillsides, but they became increasingly difficult to discern. Nature was eroding them, one day far in the future it would totally defeat them. The fortifications were now totally useless, only of interest to history buffs, thank goodness for that.

Napoleon Bridge over the Soca River - Near Kobarid

Napoleon Bridge over the Soca River – Near Kobarid (Credit: Zairon)

On Military Time – Lines of Defense
On the walk we came across many ruins that indicated the wartime work of soldiers had not yet quite succumbed to nature. There were trenches, tunnels and stone walls. Their longevity had much to do with the craftsmanship and materials from which they were made. It would have taken an incredible amount of manpower just to construct them. In one respect, it was not surprising these remnants had stood the test of time. Time was the key word when it came to them. That was not surprising since the soldiers who constructed and manned what was known as the Italian Line of Defense had a massive amount of time on their hands. We had come here wanting to see where battles had been fought, but the reality of this war, like almost every other, was that the soldiers spent more time idle than they did in battle. This was true on the Soca, despite the prolonged battles to which its name had been given.

We had almost perfect weather while making our way along the trail, the soldiers did not have the luxury of choosing what day to visit this area. The cloudless sky with a bright mid-day sun warmed the air. I doubted the weather could have been much better for this time of year, it was optimal for walking. Would any of us have felt the same if it was rain or snowing? Likely not. Italian soldiers spent days that turned into weeks, weeks that stretched into months, manning these defenses in all seasons and types of weather. This was no day trip or week-long vacation for them, it was a matter of life and death. Most often, that struggle meant staving off boredom while sitting around in the woods as nothing particularly interesting happened. Military duty along this stretch of the Soca could best be described as months and months of boredom, punctuated by a few hours of panic.

In the trenches - Italian Line of Defense, Soca River Valley

In the trenches – Italian Line of Defense, Soca River Valley

The Thunderous Call – A Slap To The Senses
I left the two Darja’s and toddler Alex behind at one point to go inspect a section of defensive works. They were dank and damp even though the weather was dry. It was fascinating to stand in the exact same trenches where Italian soldiers had a century before. There were no historic displays to provide context or explain what went on in the Italian Line of Defense. It was left to the imagination. The odd thing was that I could really get a true feel for what it must have been like. Nothing especially interesting, just staring out into the woods. This occupied my attention for a couple of minutes at most. Having to sit or stand in these woods for a couple of months or years as the soldiers did would have made for an entirely different experience. One that hardly anyone would care to repeat. Reliving history can be a fascinating thought experiment, but the reality is that very few would care to go back and experience the actual event.

Thankfully, the nature offered more satisfying pleasures than the fortifications. The true highlights of the walk were incredible views of the Soca River and its breathtaking gorge. The river waters were astoundingly transparent. Soon the river banks grew closer to one another as we neared the gorge. At one point the river was spanned by what is known as the Napoleon Bridge, constructed in 1750. It seemed that no matter where you went in or near Kobarid there was no escaping military history. In 1797 French troops had crossed a stone bridge here in this same place on their way to the Predil Pass in the Slovenian Alps. Another crossing could be done by a more recently constructed suspension bridge. From there it was on to Slap Kozjak. Slap is a wonderfully unforgettable term in Slovene that means waterfall. After taking a twisting, serpentine footpath across the bright, white limestone valley floor we suddenly came into a gorge that felt more like a natural humidifier. A faintly visible mist cooled the air amid the thunderous call of the falling water.

Slap Kozjak - Soca River Valley

Slap Kozjak – Soca River Valley

Happy Ending – A Land Beyond War
It was hard to square the beauty and peace of the Soca River Valley with the mind-boggling violence which had scarred it during the first half of the 20th century. And not all of it had occurred in the First World War either. The Yugoslav Partisans had set up camp right beside the Napoleon Bridge. Kobarid had been ethnically cleansed more than once. There was nowhere in Europe, east or west, north or south, that was not touched by the two World Wars. Beautiful and remote places, ones now frequented by tourists, had seen acts of violence which would chill the blood of even the hardest men. All that was in the past now, as would be our trip to Kobarid very soon. My Slovene friends had gone out of their way to make my experience memorable. It was, but for reasons I would not have guessed when the day had begun. They seemed just as curious as I was about the places, people and events we discovered together. I saw the Soca River valley through their eyes as well as the Italian soldier’s eyes. It was a battlefield and at the same time, much more than that. A place where people went hiking, enjoyed nature and reflected on history. This land that I had only previously known because of war, was really a place of peace and beauty. History does not have many happy endings, but Kobarid and the Soca River Valley was surely one of them.

Click here for: A Traveler’s Need: A Tourist’s Want – Hungary Over Austria: Gyor Above Everything Else

The True Face Of Battle – Kobard Museum: “Can You Imagine?”

As we got closer to Kobarid the mountains grew taller, creeping ever closer to the Soca River Valley. They broke into folds and fissures, tumbling towards the small town set out below them. After two and a half hours on the road we wound our way into Kobarid. The town was in a gorgeous setting. The Soca River, a vibrant strand of liquid turquoise, slithering down the valley. The mountains hovering above Kobarid were blanketed with thick forests. Behind these mountains were the barren summits of peaks intermittently airbrushed by misty clouds. Kobarid looked like a miniature town compared to the dramatic landscape surrounding it. In his novel A Farewell To Arms, Ernest Hemingway described Kobarid as “A little white town with a campanile in a valley.”

The campanile was still there and many of the houses were white, but their architecture was modern. A much more recent cataclysm than the Great War, an earthquake in 1976, left the town badly damaged. It had come back in style, strikingly clean and quaint, with curving streets and Italianate architecture. Kobarid had a relaxed and peaceful air about it. It may not have been the exotic Caporetto of my imagination, but it still felt a bit like an inland Mediterranean village. The town and setting matched each other perfectly, so much so that it was hard to imagine a World War shattering this bucolic image, but that was exactly what had happened.

Kobarid World War I Museum

Kobarid World War I Museum (Credit: Dani 7C3)

Ominous Monuments – Memories Of A Prolonged Nightmare
There were only two buildings in Kobarid evocative of the war that had made it so famous, the Kobarid Museum and Italian Charnel House. The latter was completed in 1938, in time for Mussolini to make an appearance at its dedication. The Charnel House loomed over the town, an ominous monument to life and death that could be seen from miles away on the road into Kobarid. It was a chilling reminder of the deadly warfare that had brought the area more infamy than glory. Kobarid or Caporetto as the Italians called it has been rated by some as the greatest military disaster in Italian history. Conversely, the Slovenes who now make up the town’s population had a unique experience with that same conflict. As members of the Austro-Hungarian Army they had fought on the winning side in the battle and the losing side of the war. Eventually they ended up with Kobarid on their side of the border, but not before another World War did its destructive work.

The other building, known as the Kobarid Museum, was famous for its portrayal of the war. When we pulled up close to the multi-storied Baroque building housing it, I wondered if it would be as good as advertised. Museums in small provincial towns are usually just that, small and provincial. The Kobarid Museum was supposed to be one of the best. I could hardly wait to see it. The museum was just as good as its reputation. In the entrance foyer were portraits of soldiers like many of the ones I have seen at the beginning of other World War I exhibits. This exhibit area was different because there were tombstones from graves found in the surrounding area, a reminder of where the fighting had led for hundreds of thousands. There were separate rooms set aside for the history of Kobarid, the fighting high up in the Slovenian Alps, how soldiers suffered in the alpine environment, life behind the lines, the fighting along the Soca River valley and the Battle of Kobarid. It was just enough information, but not too much. Most importantly it was memorable.

The Italian Charnel House in Kobarid

The Italian Charnel House in Kobarid

The Hell They Went Through – Images Seared Into The Memory
The true test for me of a first-class museum is if you can remember one specific thing about it. Whether that is an artifact, a photo or a certain exhibit that leaves an unforgettable impression. Kobarid Museum left me with such a memory as seen through the eyes of my friend Darja. While viewing the museum I wondered what the two Darja’s thought of it all. They looked closely at the exhibits just as I did. Their patience with my need to study each exhibit was incredible. I felt embarrassed that the Italian Front, as represented in this museum, was an unending display of chauvinism. Guns and swords, battle flags, photos of trenches, maps of the opposing forces dispositions, uniforms, insignia and medals, this was an all-male affair. Or so it seemed.

It was easy to forget amid all the martial paraphernalia that every soldier who had wielded a weapon was not a son of a bitch, but a mother’s son. Those soldiers in the black and white photographs were not so distant to those who held them in their hearts back home. They were longed for by mothers, sisters and daughters who could not imagine the hell they were going through in northern Italy. What they went through was most graphically depicted in a series of photographs showing the permanent wounds suffered by the soldiers. These were found in the quite fittingly named Black Room, one of the final exhibits. The images were searing. They showed men whose faces had been permanently rearranged by the bullets and shells that were so harmlessly displayed in the other exhibits. These were the true faces of war contorted into grotesque forms that looked sub-human.

The True Face Of Battle - Kobarid Museum

The True Face Of Battle – Kobarid Museum

A Reactionary Gasp – Facing Off
One photo showed a man who nose was misplaced and swollen. His left eye slumped badly, while his right eye was still in its proper place. There were three other photos arranged with this one, each showing men with permanent wounds scarring their faces or what was left of them. When Darja saw this picture her reaction was visceral. A reactionary gasp flew from her mouth, she recoiled in horror, then turned around and looked at me. Her expression said it all, it was one of horrific shock. She was saying to me in unspoken terms, “Can you imagine?” I knew exactly what she meant. In her expression I saw exactly what I was feeling. We had both seen the face of battle, one that nobody ever forgets.

Click here for: Seeing Through The Soca – Twelve Battles On The Isonzo: War Without End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power Of An Overactive Imagination – Caporetto To Kobarid: Where Dreams Go To Thrive

The formative moments of my life that motivated me to travel and discover new places only become apparent to me many years after they occurred. What brought me close to the Slovenian- Italian border to visit the village of Kobarid and surrounding Soca River Valley began over thirty years earlier in a tiny town on the edge of Charlotte, North Carolina. My grandparents lived in Derita, a community that has long since been swallowed up by Charlotte. It was here that I spent summer days helping my grandparents in their garden and with yard work. At night, my grandfather would sit on his favorite sofa reading newspapers, magazines and books. That is where I first noticed his monthly veterans paper. He had served in the United States Navy during World War I. This paper was printed for all veterans of the war. He would spend hours reading each issue. Sometimes he recounted stories from his service, which amounted to sitting on a ship in New York Harbor, then being called home earlier than expected when his mother became gravely ill. The stories he told were the beginning of my interest in the war.

My Grandfather - Hawley "Doc" Hunter 1896 -1990, U.S. Navy World War I

My Grandfather – Hawley “Doc” Hunter 1896 -1990, U.S. Navy World War I

Whiteout – A Famously Obscure Front
Two decades later I was visiting with an English friend of mind. We were at his house in Rabun County, Georgia. A professional historian and professor by trade, at that time he was retired. He had a keen interest in the war and was trying to diverse his knowledge of the different fronts. He discussed with me the difficulty in trying to find good books on the army of Austria-Hungary. The Italian Front was the only theater of the war Austria-Hungary fought in that had become part of western historical consciousness. This was almost entirely due to Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel, A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway had been a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian side of the front. That conversation piqued my interest in the topic. Not long thereafter I found a newly published book, The White War: Life & Death On The Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson. We both read it and agreed that it was the best scholarly work done on the subject.

The White War dealt with the entire theater of the war in northeastern Italy. One of its main focal points was the Battle of Caporetto, a devastating defeat for the Italians that turned into a full-scale retreat. Hemingway evocatively wrote about the chaos of Caporetto in his magnificent narrative. I went back and reread his account. Both books made me long to visit the battlefield. When I traveled to Slovenia, one of my main goals was to visit Caporetto. I knew a day trip was possible from Ljubljana. It would afford me the opportunity to finally realize my passion for this remote front of the war and visit a battlefield where Austria-Hungary (with major German assistance) had won its greatest victory.

The White War by Mark Thompson - Best single volume on The Italian Front during World War I

The White War by Mark Thompson – Best single volume on The Italian Front during World War I

The Name Changes – The Place Stays The Same
Caporetto, the name was magnetically attractive. It sounded mysterious and elegant, like a seaside resort where wealthy Europeans parked their yachts for summer long sojourns. The name started me daydreaming about an exotically glamorous spot on a sun splashed shoreline. Nothing would be further from the truth. I would only understand this after traveling to the town and surrounding battlefield. Luck turned out to be on my side regarding this trip. My Slovenian friend, Darja, despite being eight months pregnant and terribly sick the day before, picked me up at 8:00 a.m. Our first stop on the journey was her sister-in-law’s house, on the outskirts of Ljubljana. The sister-in-law was wonderfully kind and energetic. She also went by the name of Darja. The plan was for her to drive us in her SUV. The two Darja’s hospitality was incredible. They did not want me paying for gas, food or anything else. When I did they got upset. All that was asked of me was to sit beside Alex, Darja II’s son who was less than a year old. He was a pleasant child who spent much of the ride smiling.
I soon discovered that we were and were not heading to Caporetto. After World War II, the border was moved to the east and Caporetto became Kobarid, the name it was known for, first in Yugoslavia and now in Slovenia. I was never able to get used to Kobarid. That name had none of the Mediterranean elegance I associated with the Italian name. What I failed to understand is that the area had been highly contested ground between Slovenes and Italians in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Kobarid is the furthest western town in Slovenia, at best a two-hour drive from Ljubljana. Fortunately, the highway was in perfect condition. Every road we traveled on this trip looked like it had been recently paved. Such infrastructure made it easy to understand why Slovenia had become the poster child for a successful post-communist nation. Large dollops of European Union money had been poured into the country and put to good use. I found myself wishing American highways were modeled after Slovenian ones. The scenery was beautiful, large mountains crept closer the longer we drove. As for the weather, it could not have been more perfect. The previous day’s torrential downpours were now a distant memory as sunshine and blue skies greeted us.

My travel companions - Darja, Darja & Alex

My travel companions – Darja, Darja & Alex

Tripping Out – On A New Road
I was surprised at how normal this trip felt for such a unique situation. Here I was an American obsessed with going to see a World War One battlefield while being driven halfway across a country that had not even existed during the war. I was traveling in a country (Slovenia) that had been part of a different country (Yugoslavia) twenty-five years earlier. All those news reports I had seen on television in the early 1990’s about the dissolution of Yugoslavia now meant something to me. When Yugoslavia suddenly imploded and new borders were drawn, an opportunity to freely travel in the area arose. One that would have previously seemed impossible. In a sense, the political had become personal. To make matters more head spinning, I was traveling with two Slovenian women and a young toddler less than one year old. I have been accused of having an overactive imagination, but I never could have dreamed up such a delightful adventure. This was the kind of life I had always dreamed of. Never knowing who or what comes next while traveling to a place I had never been before. On this trip the rest of my life became an afterthought. This was what I called living.

Click here: The True Face Of Battle – Kobard Museum: “Can You Imagine?”