Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

There is a great amount of truth to the idea that the Red Army destroyed Konigsberg militarily and then the Soviet Union followed up by destroying it politically. A majority of the damage was done by the Soviets, but the destruction of Konigsberg really did not start with their military or political forces. It began in earnest at 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30th. That is when a firestorm started by large payloads of incendiaries dropped on the city by British Lancaster bombers conjured up a flaming false dawn. In the darkest hours of night, the city was lit by all-consuming fires that burned a deadly swath across whole parts of the city. The factual tone of the official British military report only provides a hint of the destructive force of the bombing: “Only 480 tons of bombs could be carried because of the range of the target but severe damage was caused around the 4 separate aiming points selected…..Bomber Command estimates that 41 percent of all the housing and 20 percent of all the industry in Konigsberg were destroyed.”

British Lancaster bomber - dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2

British Lancaster bomber – dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2 (Credit: Imperial War Museums)

Ground Zero – Total War Delivered By Air
One of those aiming points was likely the Konigsberg Castle. Just as Cologne’s splendid cathedral had provided a large target that could act as a central focus for strategic bombing of that historic city on the Rhine River, so too did the soaring Gothic styled Konigsberg Castle provide an inviting target in another historic German city, this one straddling the Pregel River. The Castle sustained a multitude of hits and was set alight. The heat was so ferocious that civilians who sought relief in the nearby castle pond found that its water was nearly past the boil point. This liquid fire was just as deadly as the blistering heat which raged in a tornadic vortex throughout the city center. Most of the castle burned and was still burning several days later. The only thing left standing were some of the walls and towers in very poor condition, anything wooden had been mere kindling for the napalm laden bombs that fell in, on and around it. The first stone castle on the site had been constructed by the Teutonic Knights in 1257. For nearly seven centuries the castle had been the iconic symbol of the city. After the bombing it was still iconic, albeit a very different type of icon. A smoking ruin symbolic of the old Konigsberg, one that would soon cease to exist.

The human toll exacted by the firebombing was just as horrific as the priceless architectural and cultural losses. The innocent, which included a  large proportion of mothers, small children and the elderly were most vulnerable. Some who thought they were safely sequestered in shelters were never able to escape them, burnt alive in what quickly became closed door infernos. Even those who safely fled from them found the medieval streets and alleyways engulfed by a firestorm of hellish proportions. In the Old Town there was nowhere to seek relief from the searing heat that torched nearly everything and everyone. The close quarters only added to the catastrophic damage. Apocalyptic scenes with flaming people running through the streets were a common sight during and after the bombing. In some areas of the Old Town, it would be several days before anyone could walk on the white hot cobblestones such was the ferocity of the firestorm. Eyewitnesses reported that the Pregel River caught on fire. In actuality, it was the wooden pilings in the river which were aflame. Hell could not have burned any brighter.

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Mortal Danger – Chaos & Conflagration
When dawn arrived later that morning, a gruesome cloud of ash, debris and residue mushroomed ominously above the city. Smoke billowed forth from hundreds of burning buildings. The detritus of structures and materials floated through the air falling both on the city and in villages across the East Prussian countryside. Konigsberg had been home to the largest bookstore in Germany, Grafe und Unzer. All those books filled with information and invaluable knowledge, printed to educate and illuminate, now blew through the air as incomprehensible specs of flickering dust. Debris fell from the skies like drizzle. Emergency services were overwhelmed by the human casualties, many of whom were gruesomely burned. This was a dire warning of the horrible atrocities that would befall ethnic Germans in Konigsberg during the coming year.

Much of the industrial infrastructure and war making capacity of the city was still intact after the bombing. This was a telling sign. The fact that twice as much housing was destroyed as industry meant that the Allies were looking to make the population suffer and break their will. The damage to the civilian infrastructure was immense. The British calculated that well over a hundred thousand people had been left homeless. Half of all housing in the city was now uninhabitable. The Old Town was a burnt out shell of its former self. Both the Central and North train stations were in ruins. World class cultural and academic institutions would no longer be operable. Those left in Konigsberg suddenly realized how insecure their situation was. Many either fled or began to make their initial plans to flee the city. The city had been a second home to Germans that were bombed out of cities further west, such as Berlin. Now they realized there was no escaping the war. The war fronts were closing in, Germany was surrounded and even the most far flung cities were in mortal danger.

Where It All Ends - The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945

Where It All Ends – The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945 (Credit: FriedrichTh)

The Face Of Total War – Suffering For The Sin of Nazism
The firebombing of Konigsberg was just the beginning of a very long and drawn out ending. The attack signaled that East Prussia was now within reach of the Reich’s mortal enemies both east and west. That the Allies would be merciless in dealing with a province they considered to be the heart of German militarism. The city’s role as an historic outpost of Germanic learning and culture, the home of Immanuel Kant and the highest intellectual discourse cultivated within the walls of Albertina University for five centuries, the coronation capital of Prussian kings and all of its splendid Gothic architecture meant nothing in the face of total war. Rightly or wrongly, Konigsberg and East Prussia was to suffer gravely for the sins of Nazism. It was to be a place where the Soviets could sate their appetite for revenge. As deadly as the British bombing was, even worse would soon follow.

Click here for: A Lower Level Of Hell: Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)


A Lower Level Of Hell – Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)

Years ago I had a discussion with an English friend, who also happened to be a Cambridge educated historian, on the reasoning behind Britain’s strategic bombing campaign, specifically the firebombing of Dresden. His historical focus was not on military history or World War II, BUT he had been born during the war. His mother was forced to take him into an air raid shelter several times when he was a baby. Of course he did not remember these traumatic experiences, but what he could recall were two things. One memory was of the four monuments on his street marking where German bombs had struck. The second, was that no one in the 1950’s talked about whether the bombing campaign was strategic or not. It was chiefly about one thing, “revenge”. He said that word with such brutal force and searing vigor that it startled me. At the time of our discussion many decades had passed since the end of World War II. Yet time had not moderated his opinion or assuaged his anger. I had the feeling that nothing ever would.

A target rich environment - Konigsberg along the Pregel River

A target rich environment – Konigsberg along the Pregel River

Beyond Recovery – The Irreplaceable City
Dresden. That name usually denotes one thing and one thing only in the English language, destruction of a beautiful, historic city by Allied bombers in the winter of 1944. To Germans it was a needless act of wanton destruction, to the Allies it was the targeting of a large and important city that was contributing to the German war effort. Was it revenge or good strategy? Perhaps an infernal combination of both? Another issue arises when the subject concerns the destruction of Dresden, the city seems to stand as a proxy for all other German cities bombed into smoldering ruins by the Allies. Other historic cities in Germany suffered grievous damage to irreplaceable architectural and cultural treasures, not to mention the horrific loss of human life by multiple bombings. And unlike Dresden some of these places would never be rebuilt or recover. Take for instance the historic city of Konigsberg, coronation site of Prussian kings and home to the Albertina, one of the most revered universities in Europe. After British bombing raids on August 26th-27th and August 29th -30th, the city would never be the same again. These bombings set the stage for the city’s apocalyptic destruction at the hands of the Red Army seven months later.

World War II had been ongoing in Eastern Europe since the conflict had begun with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 For most of the next five and a half years a war of unprecedented violence raged beyond the eastern frontiers of Germany. In a strange paradox, the conflict left Germany’s easternmost province of East Prussia relatively untouched. In its largest city of Konigsberg life went on much as before, except for the city’s mentally ill and its Jewish inhabitants  who were deported and subsequently murdered. The greatest hardship incurred by the ethnic German population of Konigsberg had been shortages of food and certain  goods. There were complaints, but compared with the suffering of other large German cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg – that had been intensely targeted by British and American bombers, the citizens of Konigsberg had little cause for grievance until a firestorm from hell was dropped from the skies and onto the city.

Targeted - Aerial photo of Konigsberg Castle

Targeted – Aerial photo of Konigsberg Castle

Falling From The Sky –  Zero Hour
It was late August 1944, summer in the northern part of East Prussia was slowly coming to an end. The days were getting shorter and the nights longer. The German Army was retreating on all fronts. The prospect of a Red Army breakthrough into German territory looked like a near certainty by the start of 1945. At the same time, British and American bombers were intensifying their bombardment of German cities. The citizens of Konigsberg were more worried about the looming Soviet threat on the eastern horizon. The city had not been immune from aerial attack, but such raids had done little damage. These attacks had come from the east. Soviet bombers had targeted the city on five separate occasions with minimal success. A bombing run by British or American bombers had seemed unlikely due to the distances involved. It was 950 miles one way from Britain to Konigsberg. Nevertheless, on August 26th-27th, as Saturday gave way to the first hours of Sunday morning, 174 British Lancasters began to be heard in the distance as they flew towards the city. The air raid sirens soon let loose their screaming wails.

The citizens of Konigsberg jumped out of bed and hurried into air raid shelters.  It was a crystal clear night, perfect for targeting. The entire city was lit up by flares and anti-aircraft fire. Only a handful of Lancasters were shot down, most were able to drop their bombs. These ended up a bit off target, striking the eastern part of the city. There was a great deal of damage in the neighborhoods that were struck. Casualties were light though. This was because many people were on the Baltic coast, enjoying the last bit of summer at the seaside. Those returning to the city on Sunday had narrowly escaped injury or worse. They would not have to wait long for the next attack

Among the ruins - Church in Konigsberg following August 1944 aerial bombings by the British

Among the ruins – Church in Konigsberg following August 1944 aerial bombings by the British

An Hour After Midnight – From The Ground Below
A mere three  nights later the whine of engines could once again be heard in the near distance. Konigsberg’s citizen were roused from their sleep an hour after midnight and made their way to the shelters. It was a cloudy night, so much so that the bombers nearly abandoned the run. They had to wait a good twenty minutes before there was a sufficient break in the clouds. This time there were 189 Lancasters with 480 tons of bombs zeroing in on the heart of Konigsberg. Four different aiming points were selected for their infernal payload. This bombing run was quick and efficient. Those in the shelters could only sit and wait in mortal terror. The booms, shockwaves from explosions and thunderous roar that vibrated through to them was horrifying in the extreme. If they were not in hell, than they were pretty close to it. For what must have what seemed like forever, a rain of terror fell upon the city. Then after an hour the bombers were suddenly gone, so too was much of Konigsberg, as those leaving the shelters would soon discover.

Coming soon: Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

Leaving Life Behind –  Beneath Belarusian Soil: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

No one can ever truly understand what the Holocaust was like unless they were unfortunate enough to experience it. The humiliations, suffering and depravity imposed on Jews were on a level that can only be equated with the worst aspects of humanity. It is little wonder that some of those who did survive later committed suicide. Those of us who read accounts or watch documentaries or movies about the Holocaust know that the closest approximation of the experience often comes by identifying with the victims on a personal level. Substituting ourselves in place of the persecuted, if only for a moment, can bring about a certain degree of empathy. To understand what the Jews of Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia went through is impossible. The best that can be done is to try and make a rough parallel from a shared experience. One that might give some semblance of an idea concerning the choices that victims were forced to make. This can be revealing in the extreme.

Nazi Parade in Konigsberg

Nazi Parade in Konigsberg

Impossible Choices – Taking Belongings, Taking Lives
Let us say that you have been booked on a flight to travel from Warsaw to Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg). You do not want to go, but work demands it. If you fly business class than the weight limit for a piece of luggage is 32 kilograms. The central question quickly becomes how many shirts, shoes, undergarments and personal accoutrements can be stored in this lone piece of baggage. Now imagine that one suitcase must supply you not for just a few days or a week, but for the rest of your life. Look at that small space inside that one lonely piece of luggage and imagine that this must hold all your belongings not just for this trip, but they must last forever. Everything else is to be left behind. Family heirlooms, pets, furniture and photos, anything of entertainment value suddenly becomes worthless. The prospect of survival strips everything to its essence.

Filling up that suitcase with the proper items, while at the same time discarding all nonessentials, is an impossible exercise. But what if you had dark intimations about your journey, strange feelings that survival may depend on what you choose or do not choose to take. At least that is what you have been led to believe by insidious rumors that have filtered through. Oddly your ticket is one-way with no return date yet given. Little do you know that upon arrival at the destination, you have only about a ten percent chance of survival for a few months at most. And if you are lucky enough to survive it would be as a half-starved slave laborer. Those belongings that were so carefully and excruciatingly chosen for the journey are worthless upon arrival. Does this scenario seem unimaginable? You say this could never happen, especially not to you? Why you are from the professional classes, a doctor or lawyer, an accountant or professor. You are just going on a short trip, an excursion to a land you have never visited, a place where they speak a foreign language and use an entirely different alphabet. What really awaits you? There is no way of knowing.

The above scenario may be difficult to conceive, but it is not nearly as improbable as the Holocaust, which led to much tougher choices for the Jews of Konigsberg. An even more difficult and ultimately deadlier situation than can be imagined faced them just after the start of summer in 1942. Orders were issued for Konigsberg’s Jews to gather at a riding school. They were supposedly being transported for resettlement. Each Jew was only allowed to take 30 kilograms of personal belongings with them. That is two kilograms less than allowed on the hypothetical business class flight outlined above. Eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that many tried to take much more than was allowed. This despite the fact most looked beaten with empty stares of resignation on their faces. There was a certain sense of the inevitable. As for their belongings, they would eventually be taken from them, as would their lives.

Personal effects - Belongings of Jews killed at Maly Trostinets

Personal effects – Belongings of Jews killed at Maly Trostinets

Dark Forebodings – The Final Order
The resettlement was a malevolent fallacy, meant to placate the Jews and get them to death camps without maximum coercion or an uprising. No one knew for sure what was going to happen, but many had dark forebodings. Ever since Kristallnacht in the autumn of 1938, the Jews of Konigsberg had been subjected to prejudicial laws and onerous rules which stripped them of their livelihood and dignity. Schools for Jewish children had long since been closed. Anyone fourteen or older was forced to work. Jews were given the most dangerous jobs and hardest labor. Food was scarce and could only be purchased in special shops that held meager rations which were often cut. Jews were not allowed to take part in drills meant to protect the populace from Soviet air raids. All this added up to marginalization and demoralization.

Now on a Friday evening in late summer, the kind of day which had once been reserved for joyous occasions such as late nights spent strolling along the riverfront of the Pregel, the death knell was finally sounded. Once at the riding school, the 465 Jews who had reported there were given yet another order, the last one they were to ever receive in Konigsberg. They would now be marched to the city’s North Train Station for final departure. Guards soon ushered them on to a passenger train. None of the Jews had any idea where this transport was headed. Just after half past ten in the evening that train, known in documents as Da 40, pulled out of the station. Eighteen hours later they arrived in what is now Vawkavysk in western Belarus where they were transferred, along with hundreds of other Jews, into freight cars. The next morning, a day and a half after their journey had begun, they arrived in Minsk.

Far from home - Memorial at the main massacre site at Maly Trostinez

Far from home – Memorial at the main massacre site at Maly Trostinez (Credit: Homoatrox)

Far From Home – On The Outskirts Of Minsk
Later that same day, all but about 70 of the deportees – who had been selected for work battalions – were driven by truck to the outskirts of Minsk. The journey halted on the grounds of a former Soviet collective farm near the village of Maly Trostinez. This area was in the process of becoming the site of Trostinets Extermination Camp.  The Jews from Konigsberg were taken out to a wooded area and forced into pits where they were murdered by gunshots in the back of the neck. As for each one’s 30 kilograms of belongings, those had been taken away earlier and pillaged for valuables, just as their dead bodies would be. Then soil was thrown back over the pits. Such was the final act of the final journey for most of Konigsberg’s Jews. They spent their last moments far from the soaring spires and cobblestones streets of the magnificent city they had done so much to help develop. Their final resting place was in an obscure field, on the edge of an obscure village, buried beneath Belarusian soil. Such was the end to four centuries of Jewish life in Konigsberg.

Click here for: Prestige & Persecution – Rise To Cataclysm: The Jews of Kongisberg (Part One)

Prestige & Persecution – Rise To Cataclysm: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part One)

Forgotten amid the wartime destruction of Germanic Konigsberg and its resulting transformation into ethnically Russified Kaliningrad were the Jews who once inhabited the city. They made up a vital part of the commerce and culture of Konigsberg. Just as the German Empire ascended to Great Power status in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews were playing an important role in the booming economic development of Konigsberg. Their presence in the city had begun in the smallest yet most important way possible. The first Jews allowed to settle in the city served the Duke of Prussia in the mid-16th century. This began a long affiliation with power brokers in the city. By the 20th century, the community had grown to one of the largest and most cosmopolitan in Germany. Unfortunately, this led to discrimination and ultimately to their destruction. Tragically the Jews of Konigsberg would end up despised, excluded and ultimately exterminated by their fellow Germans. Their fate was much the same as that suffered by millions of other Jews in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. The difference was that the persecution of Konigsberg’s Jewish population began several years earlier than other Jewish communities in the eastern hinterlands that would prove so deadly.

East Prussia – the provincial home of Konigsberg –  was a hotbed of Nazi sympathies and conservative German nationalism during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The province would offer a proving ground for the initial iterations of what would morph into the Final Solution. The persecution of Konigsberg’s Jews took place several years prior to the Soviet occupation of the city in 1945. When Germans lament the demise of Konigsberg at the hands of the Soviet Union, they almost always fail to mention the Third Reich’s role in murdering some of its most productive and patriotic citizens. This is easy to forget because the pre-war Jews of Konigsberg, like the German population of that historic city, have all but ceased to exist. Thorough efforts to erase all traces of Konigsberg’s vibrant Jewish community were just as much a part of Nazi militarism as the invasion of the Soviet Union which ultimately led to the Third Reich’s destruction. The Jews, along with socialists and communists, were the chosen enemy within. Those living in the most prosperous city on Germany’s eastern frontiers were usual suspects so to speak. The Jews hard-won foothold in Konigsberg had been precarious ever since their arrival four hundred years earlier.

New Synagogue - Konigsberg

New Synagogue – Konigsberg

A Class To Itself – The Limits Of Tolerance
The first known Jews in Konigsberg were doctors brought in to care for the health of Duke Albert. It would take another two centuries before Jews would establish a foothold in the city. Even then they were administered and segregated by a system setup by Frederick the Great that was considered liberal by the standards of the time, but would be inconceivable today. They were broken up into three classes “tolerated Jews”, “non-tolerated Jews” and “protected Jews”. The classes were differentiated by residential rights. Most Jews were “non-tolerated” and could not settle or own property in Konigsberg, only “protected Jews” could. This kept the population at a very minimal level. Though the Jewish population in Konigsberg tripled during the 18th century, there were still less than a thousand Jews living in the city by 1800.

It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that Jews obtained full rights in Prussia. Their population, power and prestige grew to unprecedented levels during what turned out to be a Golden Age. The earned Influence and affluence as bankers, financiers, merchants and jewelers. They gained a foothold in the professional classes that only grew as Germany boomed during an age of rapid industrial development.  Synagogues were built for both Orthodox and progressive Jews. The most famous of these was constructed to host more liberal Jews. Completed in 1896 on Lomse Island, it was known as the New Synagogue and quickly became an iconic structure in a city filled with impressive houses of worship. At the same time, Jews were becoming more and more integrated in larger German society. The First World War proved this trend, as hundreds of the city’s Jews served with distinction. On average one out of every eight Konigsberg Jews serving in the German Army won the Iron Cross for heroism.

Lost World - Interior of the New Synagogue in Konigsberg

Lost World – Interior of the New Synagogue in Konigsberg (Credit: Herausgeber Landsmannschaft Ostpreusen)

Brutal Efficiency – The Horror Unfolds
Ironically it was not the Great War that brought Antisemitism and exclusionary tendencies to the fore in Konigsberg, instead it was the aftermath. The harsh peace terms imposed on Germany, followed a few years later by runaway inflation left many Germans looking for someone to blame. Rampant insecurities about the future of Germany and the threat from communism in the east offered fertile ground for radical right-wing fascism to take hold. Jews were a convenient scapegoat. They had risen as far as their countrymen would allow them. Following the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, Jews found themselves increasingly prohibited from civil society. Their rights dwindled, as did their proportion of the population. Those who had the means heeded the dark portents of Nazi rhetoric and decided to emigrate abroad. Such foresight was informed by a sense that the situation could only get worse. On the night of November 9, 1938 it certainly did. The storm of Antisemitism broke in the form of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). The Nazis used a pre-prepared list of Jewish owned businesses to unleash a wave of brutal attacks. Windows were smashed, stores looted and Jews sustained physical attacks The New Synagogue was burnt to the ground and other synagogues were vandalized.

A desecreation - The Konigsberg New Synagogue after Kristallnacht

A desecration – The Konigsberg New Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht increased the rate and pace of Jewish emigration abroad. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population of Konigsberg had dropped to a little over 1,500, its lowest level in a hundred years. Those left in the city group was now stranded in the city as emigration was banned. They were now at the mercy of a society that was undergoing creeping brutalization by the Nazis. Many prominent Konigsberg Jews either committed suicide or were deported to concentration camps. The overriding majority of them avoided being caught in the crossfire when the Red Army fought their way into the city because were already dead. Such was the catastrophe which beset the city, that there is still no accurate figure of the number of Konigsberg’s Jews killed from 1939 -1945. There was accurate testimony though of the horror that unfolded in the city as the Holocaust was carried out with brutal efficiency.

Click here for: Leaving Life Behind – Beneath Belarusian Soil: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part Two)


In The Shadow Of The Carpathians -Eleanor Perenyi at Szollos: Finding What Was Lost (Part One)

I was looking to kill an hour before meeting friends for dinner in Budapest. I was already out and about in the city, so I chose one of my favorite activities to pass the time, looking in bookstores for English language books. This is how I ended up at the Libri bookstore across from Nyugati (Western) Train Station on a mid-winter’s afternoon. I had been in this bookstore many times before, always finding their selection of English language books in disarray. The fiction was interspersed with the non-fiction, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Tourist guidebooks could be found in more than one section, as could the oversized picture books that are so popular with tourists. The arrangement made little sense and was haphazard at best. This left me at the mercy of serendipity.

While picking my way through the stacks I noticed a paperback with a deep red spine. At first I thought the book was fiction, perhaps a short novel. The author had a Hungarian surname which piqued my interest. I had never heard of Eleanor Perenyi or the book, entitled More Was Lost: A Memoir. The cover displayed a painting called An Autumn Landscape. In that painting the trees are colored a deep orangish-red, in the background hills tinged with a violet hue are set against a yellow sky. The painting evokes a world almost on fire. This was definitely an autumn landscape, but where? I soon found the place it was meant to evoke.

The Castle at Szollos - during the 1930s

The Castle at Szollos – during the 1930s

Teetering On The Edge – The Waning Days Of Nobility
A short description of the author and her memoir were written neatly across the back cover. I was surprised to learn that Eleanor Perenyi was an American who “falls in love with a poor Hungarian baron and in short order acquires both a title and a struggling country estate at the edge of the Carpathians.” That last word hooked me. Carpathians conjured images of dark forests, remote frontier and a mysterious land. The other grabber was, “observing the invisible order of the Czech rule, the resentment of the native Ruthenians and the haughtiness of the dispossessed Hungarians”. Perenyi had lived in an area where borders collided. That pre-World War II world where disparate peoples lived side by side, each with their own languages, cultures, customs and  political aspirations. I had traveled by train on a couple of occasions through this area known as the sub-Carpathians, which in the 20th century had been part of Greater Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, back to Hungary, the Soviet Union and finally Ukraine.

This was a region at a time in history – the late 1930’s -of which relatively little was written in the English language. Perenyi was one of the few Americans who had witnessed the waning days of Hungarian nobility as it teetered on the edge of destruction. I flipped through the pages, looking for place names. On page 33 I found a grainy black and white photo of a Baroque palace labeled Szollos. The photo drew me in like a magnet, I needed this place, not only in the past of this memoir, but in the future for my life. I impulsively made the decision to purchase the book. The purchase was an affirmation that I would plan on visiting Szollos. That is if it still existed.

Eleanor Perenyi - Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Eleanor Perenyi – Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Heirs To A Noble Heritage –  The Perenyi’s Place In The World
Immediately I read through the book’s introduction which gave an overview of Eleanor Perenyi’s life. I discovered she came from a wealthy family in the northeastern United States. She had been traveling with her mother in Europe, when she went to dinner one night in Budapest. That was where the young Eleanor, who was only of high school age at the time, met Zsiga Perenyi. It was not long thereafter that the couple was married in Venice. Zsiga was heir to a noble heritage, but at this point in history the Perenyi family was nearly impoverished. They did own a palace and small estate which had ended up in the Subcarpathia region of Czechoslovakia due to the post-World War One Treaty Of Trianon which had dismembered Greater Hungary. This was problematic. When they had first met, Zsiga did not have the right to live at his ancestral family home, only visit. The land reform following Czechoslovakia’s takeover of the region had led to shrinkage of the Perenyi estate. Despite this, there was still the palace, orchards, a garden and forests that might somehow be renovated into a viable estate. Zsiga obtained the proper permission to resettle there along with his new American wife. This was as far as I got into the book during my first reading.

I could hardly wait to do research on Szollos, to learn some of its history and locate it on a map. The place Eleanor Perenyi refers to as Szollos is actually Vynohradiv (Nagyszolos in Hungarian) in extreme southwestern Ukraine today. I had already learned from the book’s introduction that the castle still existed, albeit in a much different state from when the newlywed Perenyi’s lived there. The exterior looked much the same as it did before the war broke out. The interior was an entirely different story. From what I could see it had been greatly modified. Ironically the Soviets had made a museum out of it, but then Ukraine transformed it into an administration building for the local schools. This was nothing new for old aristocratic palaces and manor houses in Eastern Europe. Since the mid-20th century they have been valued as much for utilitarian purposes as for their history. Zakarpattia Oblast, the Ukrainian administrative district where the former Perenyi residence is located today, happens to be one of the poorest places in the country. Since the castle was such a well-built structure it has been used for a multitude of enterprises. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, thus it is much harder to procure development funds for reconstruction. History is not number one on the list of priorities for a place struggling to survive.

Perenyi Castle

Perenyi Castle (Credit: ibulyah)

Haunted Castle  – The Ghosts of Love
From what I discovered  in my initial research the past is a different country in Szollos, lost in time, but not to memory because More Was Lost manages to capture the past. Perenyi’s love for that period of her life was so great that she could not fathom a return, the hurt went too deep. She was aware of how much had changed at the castle, it was one of the reasons she never went back, not once after writing her memoir, even though she lived until 2009. The couple’s only child, a son named Peter, visited in 2001. He brought back pictures which caused his mother to recoil in horror. The castle was a far cry from the way it looked in her day or for that matter today. It was on the verge of becoming, like her long ago love, a ruin. Since that time enough work has been done to make it look respectable and worth a visit, if no longer for the Perenyi family, then at least for me.

Coming soon: A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)