Seeing Double – The Enver Hoxha Hoax: Two Faces In The Mirror

The Oxford English Dictionary defines dystopia “as an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” It is hard to argue with the OED, which acts as the ultimate reference work on the English language. Nevertheless, I feel one corrective is necessary. Rather than “an imagined state or society”, what about a real one. A prime example immediately comes to mind: Albania from 1944 – 1985. These dates delineate the reign of Enver Hoxha, a man who crafted a state that was the very definition of dystopia. There were collective farms so unproductive that they led to malnutrition and near famine. Widespread shortages of almost everything except for concrete bunkers. The range of communal activities included mass purges and labor camps. Scores of crumbling apartment blocs, a nightmarish reminder of an existence characterized by bleakness and blight. Hoxha’s Albania was an ideological apocalypse on a national scale.

Albania’s dystopian society also produced its fair share of mad tales. How could it not? The system inverted human nature and created a logic all its own, infecting everyone and everything with Hoxha’s own peculiar brand of sinister paranoia. Suspicion was the driving force behind the government’s actions and Hoxha was the driving force behind the government. His actions were spectacularly malevolent. Hoxha went through Ministers of the Interior the way King Zog went through cartons of cigarettes. Hoxha, once an instructor of morals at a Tirana Gymnasium, shuttered churches and persecuted priests with a demonic virulence that would have made Stalin proud. It was Hoxha, or perhaps it was his double, who smiled and waved at the Albanian people he treated with complete contempt.  It was also Hoxha’s double, or the lack thereof, which became the most spectacular story to leak out of the country following communism’s collapse.

Double Vision - Enver Hoxha

Double Vision – Enver Hoxha (Credit: Adam Jones)

Extreme Makeover – A Twin Killing
While doing research on Enver Hoxha a few weeks ago, I was perusing entries found under his name in the index of Robert Carver’s insightful travelogue, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania. Thumbing through the pages, I soon came across a story so startling that I read and reread it multiple times. According to the book Hoxha had a double (sosi in Albanian), a man who impersonated him in public to ensure the chronically paranoid dictator’s safety. His job included more than just handing out awards, attending parades and celebratory events. The double had also been forced to give up any pretense of his former life. His wife and daughter were no longer allowed to see him. He underwent cosmetic surgery that transformed his face into a mirror image of Hoxha’s. He was given intensive training so he could speak and act like Hoxha. He was force fed a daily diet of the same food, in the exact same quantities that Hoxha ate. Those who had helped transform the double into a mirror image of Hoxha were sworn to eternal secrecy by being placed in a bus and driven off a cliff into the Adriatic Sea.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of this tale was the double’s life after the real Hoxha died in 1985. His first instinct was to go searching for his wife and two daughters. The double’s family had been the one hope left in his life during decades of forced servitude. Tragically, he was told by his handlers not to bother since they had been murdered a week after he was forced into servitude as Hoxha’s double. As if his life could not get any worse, it soon did.  Wherever the former double went, he was either feared or despised. He was nearly hounded to death by irate Albanians, being either attacked by those who loathed Hoxha or shunned by those who ran away frightened. It seems the only place he could find respite was in a labor camp surrounded by prisoners who had never seen Hoxha’s likeness. Eventually he attempted to flee Albania by entering the West German embassy, but other Albanian refugees attacked him with barely disguised hatred. Left to his own dismal devices, the double mutilated himself to alter his looks once again. With his raison d’etre long since stripped from him by fate and misfortune the double returned to the labor camp where he lived out his life.

Biografi: a traveller's tale - Lloyd Jones

Biografi: a traveller’s tale – Lloyd Jones

Too Bad To Be True – A Traveler’s Tale
The story was so intriguing that I forgot it might be too bad to be true. I began to research other sources that would support the tale of Hoxha’s double. Instead, I was soon doing a double take. The story turned out to be an infamous fit of fiction courtesy of New Zealand novelist/travel writer Lloyd Jones. I should have known better since Hoxha and hoax go together quite well. The fabulous Mr. Jones had concocted a story from a kernel of truth that fit the ambitions he had for “Biografi: a traveller’s tale”. While traveling around Albania for work on the book, Jones had heard about Hoxha’s double. He supposedly spent a great deal of time hunting him down. He finally found the double, a former dentist by the name of Peter Shapallo, then interviewed him at length. This resulted in the core story of Biografi, which was picked up by publishers in several major markets. Only when reviewers and publishers began to question the veracity of his tale, did Jones come clean. Well sort of. He stated that the book was a combination of fiction and fact. He left the reader to decide which was which. This did little to derail Jones’ career and may have given it an added boost. As for Shapallo, he most likely never existed.

Picture perfect - Enver Hoxha

Picture perfect – Enver Hoxha

Did Enver Hoxha have a double? Almost certainly and probably more than one. A man as paranoid and suspicious as Hoxha would be especially attuned to his personal safety. Whether or not Peter Shapallo ever existed seems beside the point. The fact that such a story could come out of Albania and be taken as the truth is a telling sign. The dystopian world of Enver Hoxha’s Albania was one where the real and imagined interbred. The incestuous relationship between fantasy and reality, fact and fiction made one indistinguishable from the other. The fictional Peter Shappalo was the product of this relationship, so was the real Enver Hoxha.

Suspicious Minds – Enver Hoxha & Albania: A Cult of Capriciousness

To put it simply, the Balkans has a bad reputation. Much of this is due to the long shadow cast by the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. To outsiders, it is a region of ferocious blood feuds, historical grievances and xenophobic politicians ready to surface at any time. Those of us who have spent time in the Balkans find that it is a pleasant place to travel. The scenery is spectacular, the food magnificent, the people generally warm hearted and the history incredible. It is a shame that the Balkans has been tarred with the bad reputation brush, but it is easy to see why. The years following the Cold War were filled with ethnic cleansing, brutish warfare and a series of authoritarian leaders who whipped their countrymen into violent feeding frenzies.

Amid the crazed discourse and horrific warfare, it was easy to forget about another Balkan nation that had just finished experiencing its own dreadful dictatorship, Albania. In the early 1990’s, what had once been Europe’s hermit kingdom awoke from a long nightmare to find itself a half century behind the modern world. The bizarre stories that began to leak out of the country were obscured by the fractious fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Albania was such an anomaly that it was almost forgotten. This was just the way its long time Stalinism on steroids leader, Enver Hoxha, would have wanted it. Hoxha’s name hardly rings a death knell when it comes to communist leaders. He might as well be a ghost, but the lost decades under his rule still haunt hundreds of thousands of Albanians who suffered one of the most bizarre and vile dictatorships in the annals of modern Europe.

A Fistful of Malevolence - Enver Hoxha

A Fistful of Malevolence – Enver Hoxha (Credit: Forrasjeloles Hasonlo)

The Hermit Nation – Taking A Hard Line
To understand the bizarre nature of what Albania suffered during Enver Hoxha’s long and terrible reign a single word will suffice, beards or to be more precise, the lack of them. The Hoxha regime’s most enduring trait was paranoia on a scale that would even put Stalin’s obsessive suspiciousness to shame. Outside (i.e. western influences) were strictly prohibited. In 1967 the banning of beards was enshrined in the Albanian constitution. This meant that all men had to be clean shaven or else. The consequences for those who failed to obey were dire. Often the police would shave the offender than subject them to severe beatings, time in prison or even worse. To have a beard was tantamount to a capital offense. It meant you were non-conformist or religious (Muslim or Orthodox Christian, it did not matter). The puppet master in chief Hoxha and his ever-evolving retinue of marionettes would not tolerate either. The idea that facial hair was subversive could only have been the work of someone as paranoid as Hoxha.

Hoxha’s paranoia extended well beyond Albania’s borders. When the Khrushchev government proceeded to call out Stalin’s excesses and normalize Soviet relations with the free world, Hoxha ended the alliance that had first sustained his power. He did the same with China after Mao decided to restore relations with the United States.  A hard line could not be hard enough for Hoxha. By the late 1970’s, Albania was by far the most insular state in Europe and one of the most isolated in the world. It was North Korea in the Balkans. Albania became as mysterious as Hoxha. The latter’s rise to power near the end of World War II still baffles historians. It is not the only thing. Documenting the life of Hoxha has been a difficult task. It took thirty years after Hoxha’s death for the first English language biography of him to appear in print. Unfortunately, the book was more an endless litany of Hoxha’s crimes rather than an incisive portrait of the man.

The Good Old Days - Enver Hoxha's as a partisan in 1944

The Good Old Days – Enver Hoxha as a partisan in 1944

Equality of Tyranny – Arrested Development
Historians are still mystified as to many of the basic facts surrounding Hoxha’s life, including why he was chosen to lead Albania’s communist movement.  Adding to this knowledge gap is the fact that anyone who helped Hoxha acquire power was later purged. Outside of his immediate family, Hoxha spared no one. This was a man who had his own brother-in-law put to death. Constant surveillance, mass arrests, party purges, labor camps and summary executions were the means by which Hoxha exercised power for 41 years. The repetitive nature of Hoxha’s terror regime meant that everyone was considered suspicious and no one was above arrest. Hoxha’s own paranoia was inculcated to an entire nation. Understanding the source of Hoxha’s paranoia remains elusive, but its horrific effect on Albanians was all too real.

The cliché, damned if you do and damned if you don’t, pertained to life in Albania for both outsiders and insiders. The average Albanian lived in austere conditions at best and abject poverty at worst. By the end of Hoxha’s life in 1985, Albania was one of the world’s poorest countries with famine prevalent in the countryside. Meanwhile, those in power were privileged in only the most superficial sense of the word. They lived in a special area of the capital Tirana, known as the Block. This heavily guarded zone was replete with all the fashionable goods from the West denied to the rest of Albania’s population.
On the other hand, living in the Block made one a prime target for the next purge which was always forthcoming. Family, friends and confidantes fell from favor, often ending up in a labor camp or worse.

The Last Bunker - Enver Hoxha's Grave in Tirana

The Last Bunker – Enver Hoxha’s Grave in Tirana (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

A Land Ruled By Paranoia– Bunker Mentality
The capricious nature of Hoxha’s ruling style only made matters worse. He could strike at any moment, Adherence and adulation were never enough to avoid falling out with Hoxha. A cult of personality was cultivated by his henchman, but like many a dictator this did little to ameliorate the effects of Hoxha’s deep rooted insecurities which manifested themselves in state sponsored terror. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, both near and far. The ultimate expression of his fear were the concrete bunkers he ordered built all over the country to defend against an invasion which was imminent only in his own mind. They also happened to be his greatest legacy. These were the harbingers of a doom and gloom mentality. The bunkers were supposed to keep Albania safe from external invaders, but who was going to keep Albanians safe from Hoxha.

Rolling Up The Red Carpet – Leka of Albania: The Comeback King (Part Three)

Some things never change, especially in Albania. During the post-communist era, Albanian politics was still the same minefield of corruption, backstabbing and intrigue that Leka’s father, King Zog, had barely managed to survive.  Add to this combustible concoction a full-blown economic crisis in 1997 and Albania was a recipe for disaster no matter who ruled over it. The only truly great leader the country ever produced was the Ottoman fighting Skanderbeg. Unfortunately, he died half a millennium ago. Leka was no Skanderbeg, for that matter he was no King Zog either. He would have been a bad choice in the best of times, but with the country beset by chaos, neither the country’s population nor other politicians was willing to take a chance on restoring the monarchy. He had no experience in managing the economy or cutting political deals with the opposition.

Leka’s idea of compromise was the barrel of a gun. That was up until the shooting started, then he headed back into exile. The days of omnipotent kings ruling by decree were a thing of the past in Europe. Leka would have struggled to survive in Albania’s tumultuous political and economic environment. Heading back into exile was a good career move following the failed restoration referendum of 1997, though Leka certainly did not see it that way. It was miraculous that a referendum had been held in the first place. Albania’s only experience with royalty had been bittersweet and short lived (King Zog reigned from 1928 – 1939). Leka’s return had been thwarted by a democratic referendum. His future monarchical prospects now looked as bleak as they ever had been. This still did not stop Leka from longing to return to a homeland he barely knew.

Almost Infamous - King Leka

Almost Infamous – King Leka

A Marginalized Man – Running Away From Home
After all the sensationalism and spectacular failures that had accompanied Leka on his two return trips to Albania there was little left for him to do other than wait. What exactly he would wait for was anyone’s guess? There was no longer a communist government to overthrow or oppose. The failure to restore the monarchy by referendum had dealt Leka’s hopes of ever ruling his homeland a mortal blow. Adding insult to injury, Leka was sentenced in absentia to sedition and given three years in prison for the role he had played in leading a protest march turned riot following the failed referendum. This was another sentence he would never serve in Albania. A failed pretender or prisoner in exile, there did not seem to be much difference between Leka’s role inside or outside Albania. He was a marginalized man, who was adept at doing little more than putting on royal airs. This served to inflate his ego, but otherwise did him little good.

Leka was leading a star-crossed existence. Escaping from the abyss he had dug for himself during his time in Tirana during the 1997 referendum looked close to impossible. That was until geo-politics intervened in the form of the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Fortune finally smiled on Leka. His longstanding support for a Greater Albania incorporating the nation of Albania as well as those ethnic Albanian communities living in adjacent areas (Kosovo, western Macedonia and northwestern Greece) finally began to pay dividends. He was instrumental in helping raise millions of dollars among the Albanian exile and émigré community in the western world to provide ethnic Albanians in Kosovo with humanitarian relief and weaponry for the Kosovo Liberation Army. This endeared him to Albanians both inside and outside the country.

The End Is Near - Leka late in life

The End Is Near – Leka late in life

Above & Beyond Politics – An Unforgettable & Unimportant Role
In 2002, one of the most bizarre comeback stories in modern times came full circle when 72 members of the Albanian Parliament voted to ask Leka and his family to return. A law recognizing the royal family’s rights was passed not long thereafter. Leka, his wife and son along with his mother, the former Queen Geraldine returned to Albania, but not quite in triumph. A crowd of thousands were expected to greet them, but only a few hundred showed up for what turned out to be a sobering welcome. After his return to Albania, Leka played a very minor role in politics. He went so far as to say, “I am above all political parties, even my own.” He had become a figurehead turned father figure who most Albanians saw as a cross between a novelty and a non-entity. He saw himself as important, few others shared that sentiment. A few years after his return, Leka completely renounced any role in politics. Instead, he spent time at his home in Tirana, a mansion owned by an émigré Albanian-American multimillionaire.

Leka always managed to land on his feet, despite his many flaws. By turns, arrogant and naïve, strong willed and foolishly stubborn. His strongest trait was perseverance in the face of incredible odds. This was his greatest talent. It eventually led him back to Tirana, but not to the throne. He was little more than a bit player in Albania. A character actor in the most literal sense, playing an unforgettable and unimportant role. His return was bittersweet. The Dowager Queen Geraldine died in 2002, the same year that the family returned to Albania. Two years later his wife Susan succumbed to lung cancer. Leka’s health declined during the years that followed. He took his greatest satisfaction in the exploits of his son, Leka II, who like his father, graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Otherwise, Leka kept a low profile, the exact opposite of his life prior to returning.

The Man Who Could Be King - Leka II

The Man Who Could Be King – Leka II (Credit: IndianRoyalist)

Reaching The Limit – A Guest In Someone Else’s Home
After his return, Leka finally realized that he had reached his limit. He was never going to be an all-powerful monarch, only an afterthought. His greatest achievement was returning to live out the last years of his life in Albania. The act of going back and not being forced out was a sign of his modest success. In 2011, Leka died at the age of 72. He had not spent a single day of his life as King of Albania, at least not in an official capacity. In his imagination, the situation was reversed. Leka always saw himself as the king, separated only by history from his country. The reality of his years in Albania told a different story. Leka had lived out the last years of his life in someone else’s home, a guest of honor in a country that was never be his own.

A One Way Ticket To Oblivion – Abandonment: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Three)

“See that glass”, Attila said as he pointed at the ruined roof of Istvantelek Train Yard’s main workshop, “that could slice your head right off.” We were standing outside the workshop looking at the ruined roof. As many of the glass panels were missing as those that remained. The panels had been battered and broken after years of neglect, falling and shattering without anyone there to notice. The roof was a rather ominous warning of the dangers that lay inside the main workshop. I now realized why visitors were hardly ever allowed inside Istvantelek. Even when the rare guided tour was given, the workshop was off limits.

Of course, passion, mystery and intrigue were working in our minds to defeat the inherent dangers of entering an industrial site strewn with a minefield’s worth of hazards. Both Attila and I peered in through an open window to see what ruined treasures stood inside. That was when I noticed a scene that had first caught my eye on the internet. Inside were graffiti covered carriages, too many to count. This was a train enthusiast’s heaven, an urban explorer’s dream. It made my heart skip a beat. I felt the kind of longing usually reserved for a long lost, unrequited love. I wanted to get inside, but how. That was when Attila said, “let’s go in and have a look.”

On the Outside Looking In - Workshop at Istvantelek

On the Outside Looking In – Workshop at Istvantelek

Positively Apocalyptic – A Veil of Grime & Dust
Getting into the main workshop was much easier than getting into the site. There was no guard or anything else to bar entry, only an opening where a door used to be. This opening was slightly obscured by an encroachment of ivy. Such greenery was a strange counterpoint to the rust, ruin and broken glass closing in around it. Upon entering through the open doorway, we were immediately confronted with another world. The scene before us was positively apocalyptic. Everything was in a state of semi-ruin. Locomotives and passenger cars were lined up in a procession that had gone nowhere for decades, a motley assemblage of industrial detritus was scattered about. It was as though we had walked on the set of a zombie film. Any minute I expected to have some otherworldly creature lunging for me. I have never been stalked before, but I cannot imagine a worse place for that to happen.

The entire place looked as though it had been shot to pieces. Shafts of light penetrated through the many openings in the roof.  The railway cars colors looked incredibly vivid, especially those covered with graffiti. There was beauty to be found amid the ugly reality of these cast-offs. The rust and graffiti were powerful artistic counterpoints to one another. One the work of time and neglect, the other created by the mind and hand of man. Everything was cloaked in a veil of grime and dust. And throughout the workshop all that could be heard was an empty silence. The main workshop was the end of the line, the end of an age, the end of history for over one hundred locomotives and railway cars. We were at a station inhabited by ghosts with a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Hazards of the Job - Inside the Main Workshop at Istvantelek

Hazards of the Job – Inside the Main Workshop at Istvantelek

Magnificently Creepy – An Irresistible Invitation
Inside the main workshop we walked down one row after another, between passenger cars that managed to all look different and somehow the same. From time to time, the most eye-catching relics would cause us to pause and ponder how they had arrived at this place. Doors were flung open, offering an ominously irresistible invitation to step inside. And that is just what we did. One carriage was of especial interest after Attila informed me that it was used to deliver the mail. Upon entering we found the mail slots empty except for an inch or two of dust. It had been a post office riding the rails that delivered to small, remote villages. This mail car did not deliver to other postal facilities. Instead, it delivered straight from the car.

The excitement that once accorded the mail car upon its arrival must have been dramatic. This was the traveling messenger of the early 20th century delivering happiness and sorrow in unequal quantities across the Great Hungarian Plain and the hills, mountains and valleys of northern Hungary. To get a letter from this car must have been an event in of itself, rivaled only by the postal car’s appearance. It was an essential connection between Hungarian villages and the larger world. The stories this postal car could tell would have been unbelievable, but just as it was always on the move from one village to the next, so was time and progress, creating a distance from the past that could never quite be recovered.

Mail Call - Inside an old mail car at Istvantelek

Mail Call – Inside an old mail car at Istvantelek

There was also a multitude of empty passenger cars, many of which I recognized from my own travels across Hungary’s railways. Several of these had been festooned with eye popping graffiti. One had the phrase 420 Hurts painted on it just below four windows without a single pane of glass. Hurts was painted in blood red that had slowly crawled down from the letters. The graffiti was redolent of a murder scene and looked more like the work of an urban gang than random vandals. Speaking of vandals, I did not doubt that some of the cars had been vandalized, but this only added to their post- apocalyptic aesthetic. Here was a world that looked as though it had been subjected to a nuclear attack. I could imagine giant cockroaches and lethal alien beings lying in wait for the unsuspecting urban explorer. The fact that much of the railway stock looked familiar made the workshop seem magnificently creepy. For some reason, I had the feeling we were always being watched. Perhaps this fear arose from being surrounded by abandonment.

The Last Time - Oil Change on December 12th 2001

The Last Time – Oil Change on December 12th 2001

A Dark Secret – Lost In Translation
A constant source of curiosity and perplexity for me were the letters and numbers that had been painted, etched or stenciled on so many of the locomotives and cars. These were written in an unintelligible language that I had no idea how to decipher. Attila remarked that a train enthusiast would have a field day with such terminology. They could disseminate the make and model, where and when for each of these relics by translating such coded messages. Attila was able to translate one of these. Written on the side of a badly beaten up wooden railway car was OLAJCSERE. Db.2001.12.11. This meant that an oil change had been done back on December 12th, 2001. We found this particularly amusing since preventive maintenance was not exactly the strong suit of Istvantelek.

Another wooden train car, one that was still sporting much of its red paint, had more ominous terminology stamped on it, among which I immediately noticed the words “Deutsche Reichsban.” This was a reminder of a horrific artifact that was said to still be located at Istvantelek. One that made these abandoned cars suddenly seem menacing. There was a very dark secret said to lurk among these cars, one which is known by a single word, Auschwitz.

Click here for: A Question Without An Answer – The Holocaust In Hungary: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Four)

An Era Of Terror – Memento Park: “Stalin’s Boots” in Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 47)

Any park that has as its centerpiece “Stalin’s Boots”, is bound to demand your attention. In this case, “Stalin’s Boots” were not made for walking, they were made for trampling. Trampling the hopes and aspirations of Hungarians until one incredible day in October 1956 the people had enough. That was when the massive statue of Stalin was pulled down. Along with it went hardline Stalinism in Hungary. It would eventually be replaced by “Goulash Communism”. One of the most powerful photos from that historic day shows Stalin’s giant head laying on the ground. This was the face plant felt round the world. The only thing still standing of that Stalin was his boots. The massive symbol of Soviet might had been cut down to size.

“Stalin’s Boots” became an iconic and ironic symbol of a stagnant, stolid system that was stuck in place. For no Stalin ever appeared again in Hungary to fill those boots. Like the communist system, “Stalin’s Boots” could still stand on their own, but the menace that filled them had disappeared. In its place, were straw men, invisible men, who no longer dictated, but decreed and directed. The power of Stalin’s boots was the period it evoked. The era of terror, total control and all-consuming fear that gripped Hungary from 1948 to 1956 came screaming to a halt during the Hungarian Revolution until the uprising was put down by Soviet forces. The power of those boots and that dark history can be felt on a visit to Memento Park. This is where “Stalin’s Boots” joins a sobering series of magnificently awful communist era sculptures set aside in a park unlike any other I have ever visited.

An Arresting Reminder - Stalin's Boots at Memento Park

An Arresting Reminder – Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Discarded Detritus – Communist Curios On A Superhuman Scale
When the iron curtain fell, so did thousands of statues all over Eastern Europe. Hundreds of these were pulled down in Hungary, many of them in Budapest. The pantheon of communist heroes such as Lenin and Marx, a wide range of local apparatchiks, fierce looking soldiers and joyful workers were pulled down. They were replaced by a whole new cast of characters, democratic, capitalist and aristocratic heroes began to reappear in the same squares where many of them had once stood decades earlier. The understandable reaction among the Hungarian populace that had labored under totalitarianism was to have the communist era statues discarded once and for all time. Yet this was also history that could not be wiped away so easily. These same sculptures and statues not only represented a failed system, they also represented the past. One that in the heady rush to freedom and democracy most of the population wanted to forget.

The dustbin of history during the early 1990’s was overflowing with the discarded detritus of totalitarian set pieces. A few brave Hungarian voices in Budapest stated that the statues should be set aside and interpreted for what they were, communist propaganda etched, carved and written in stone. These people understood that an important part of the past would be lost if these set pieces were not preserved. In the nation’s capital, a novel idea took root. Rather than destroy propaganda from the recent past that had pockmarked the cityscape, they would instead be moved to an open-air museum and placed in proximity to one another. Tourists would be welcome to visit what most Hungarians would rather forget. It would be a trove of communist curios all on a superhuman scale.

A Revolutionary Reappraisal - Lenin still standing

A Revolutionary Reappraisal – Lenin still standing

An Arresting Reminder – Meet The Parents
For me, as for the 40,000 tourists who annually visit Memento Park, getting there was not exactly easy. The park is nowhere near the city center. Instead it requires a bus trip to the distant southwestern suburbs of Buda where the park stands in a former farm field. I made my way to the park by first taking a tram to Kelenfold Train Station where I then picked up one of the buses that regular travel the route. Onboard the bus, I noticed that the passengers were almost all locals. I would not hear a word of English spoken on the 20 minute ride. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand when I first boarded and said “Memento Park” while pointing at myself. I assumed that he would notify me when we arrived at the correct stop. That is exactly what happened twenty minutes later.

Departing from the bus, I found myself along what could have been any highway in the countryside. Budapest seemed a long way from here even though the city center was only five kilometers away. The development was not nearly as dense out here along the city’s periphery. I quickly walked across Highway 7 towards the park. I was almost immediately greeted by a strange sight. On the right side of the road were two wooden barracks that looked like they had been lifted straight out of a labor camp and strategically placed near the entrance to Memento Park. The barracks acted as an arresting reminder of where communism often ended up.

A Recent Memory - Memento Park

A Recent Memory – Memento Park

No Laughing Matter – The Power To Destroy
Between the two barracks I could see “Stalin’s Boots”. This reproduction was not an exact replica of the original, but the model sufficed. Of note, was the austere concrete platform where communist officials would have stood with Stalin’s presence hovering over them, a figure of towering and unassailable omnipotence. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those who stood as I did below the platform peering up at the massive sculpture. The statue and platform were an awe-inspiring symbol of vile statecraft. Hungarians were forced to look up to Stalin just as he was looking down upon them. He held the power of life and death over them.

I then turned around to enter the open-air museum portion of the park where 42 statues and sculptures stood. Looking at the open-air museum, I felt a sense of irony. It was like viewing the world’s largest advertisement for failure. Yet communism and its remnants were no laughing matter. Tens of thousands of Hungarians lost their lives and/or their livelihoods due to a system that sacrificed the individual for the state, substituted human creativity for mind numbing conformity and demanded the subjugation of the masses in pursuit of a twisted dystopia. Viewing these statues and contemplating what they stood for begged the question: If communists were trying to represent heaven on earth than I could only wonder what would have been their idea of hell.

Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)

The focal point of my visit to Castle Hill was the Hungarian National Military Museum. I had been looking forward to going there for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was out of luck on this day as the museum was closed. I was a bit discombobulated by the closure, but before I could come up with a new plan I stumbled upon a fascinating relic of architecture. On the backside of the museum I spotted an old Gothic Church tower. It loomed over Kaspistrzan Square, a battered reminder of the intertwined fate of Christianity and conflict in the Castle District. This was the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, an astonishing artifact out of all proportion and style to its surroundings. It immediately demanded my attention. I did not have any foreknowledge of its history or forewarning of its presence, but I immediately knew that it was much more impressive than anything I would have seen in the military museum. The Tower sent me on a journey that lasted long after my visit that day. A journey deep into its fascinating history. A history of conflict, combat and conquest. A history of invasion, occupation and regeneration.

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene - Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene – Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

Beginning At The End – A Garden Of Scattered Ruins
The Tower is all that is left of the Church of Mary Magdalene. All other parts of the Church have vanished, victimized like so much else on Castle Hill by the catastrophic destruction unleashed during the 1944-45 Siege of Budapest and the vicissitudes of totalitarianism which was imposed in the war’s aftermath. Destruction and transformation are constants in the history of the Church. For the Church of Mary Magdalene cannot be thought of as the kind of architectural entity or house of worship fixed once and for all time, instead it has been shaped and molded by the varying extremes that have buffeted the history of Hungary and by extension Castle Hill. Instead of starting at the beginning in telling the history of the Church, perhaps it is better to start where I did, at the end.

My first view of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene was startling. I knew almost immediately that the tower stood as much for what was not there as what was. This was a place where presence and absence were inseparable. There was a garden of scattered ruins fronting the tower, providing rough traces of what had once existed. The Tower itself, like the Military Museum, was not open on this day. That made it no less impressive. I was forced to use my imagination to try and envision what it had once been like. The tower looked and felt medieval, but as I would later learn that was only part of its story. A view from the top would have been spectacular, but even from ground level its height and proportions had a way of causing dizziness. A sort of vertigo in reverse, induced while looking upward from the ground below. It had a Leaning Tower of Pisa like quality, looking as though it might fall at any moment. And of course, it had not fallen and probably never would, at least not in my lifetime. The present age is most likely not the end for the tower, more like another beginning.

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction (Credit:

The Separation of Church & State – The Conqueror Becomes The Conquered
There have been many beginnings for the Church of Mary Magdalene. The first of these dates to its inception back in the 13th century. It acted for the next several centuries as the Parish Church for Hungarians in the Castle Hill area. The German population had their own house of worship nearby, the Matthias Church. Each ethnic group was segregated from the other in religious affairs. A stultifying example of how heaven is informed by the human prejudices on earth. Back in those times, the Church was a fine example of Gothic architecture. It remained as such even after the Ottoman Turkish conquest following their successful Siege of Buda in 1541. The Church was the only one which was not immediately turned into a mosque. It managed to serve the Christian population for half a century. That was until the Turks finally decided to make it a mosque during the Long War (1591-1606). This transformation did not last out the 17th century. A Habsburg led army defeated the Turks in yet another Siege of Buda in 1686. The siege left the church badly damaged. And began yet another era in its history.

There is a saying that every crisis is also an opportunity, the same might be said about the aftermath of war. The ability to change things is much easier when something has been brought to near ruin. That is what transformed the Church of Mary Magdalene in the early modern age. The church was given to the Franciscans who tore down what was left of the existing structure, except for the tower. They then rebuilt the church with a single nave in fully fledged Baroque style. The Franciscans were eventually ousted after the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his edict closing monasteries in the latter part of the 18th century. The Church stood dormant for many years with only one memorable exception. An unlikely event which bequeathed a bit of fame upon it took place in 1792. In that year, the Church was the scene for Habsburg Emperor Franz I’s coronation. This was an eventful interregnum amid a long period in which the church was scarcely utilized.

Casualty of war - Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene

Casualty of war – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene (Credit:

Live By The Sword , Survive Despite The Sword – A Final Testament
In 1817 the Church was handed over to the military garrison in Buda. The military used it to conduct services for the soldiers up until the outbreak of World War II, but it was militarism that would bring most of it down. The catastrophic violence the church endured during the Siege of Budapest left it once again teetering on the edge of extinction. Several years after the war’s end, most of the ruins were swept away by order of Hungary’s Stalinist dictator Matyas Rakosi. Only the Tower was left as an austere reminder, standing as a final testament to over 600 years of Hungarian history, a statement of ruin and rejuvenation. The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene bears silent witness to all those ages that have long since passed.

Click here for: Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Budapest is incredible and not just for its architecture. The fact that there is anything still standing atop the hill is either a miracle or a powerfully encouraging sign of Hungarian resiliency, depending upon one’s perspective and system of belief. The Hill has been riven time and again by centuries of warfare. Just about every medieval and modern weapon has been used against it. From catapults to cannons, arrows to harquebuses, arsenals of weaponry have been used to break the will of those defending this limestone plateau. Innumerable sieges and counter-sieges have taken place, to the point where besiegers often end up becoming the besieged. And after all the bombs and bullets have been expended, Hungarians have still managed to claim Castle Hill as their own. I can think of no greater example of staying power.

A shell of itself - Castle Hill in Buda 1945

A shell of itself – Castle Hill in Buda 1945

Lots of War & A Little Peace – Deconstructing History
To get an idea of just how traumatic the history of Castle Hill has been, start with numbers. By one count, since the Mongol invasion in 1241 through the end of World War II in 1945, there have been eighty-six different times Castle Hill was ravaged by warfare. In other words, on innumerable occasions it was left in ruin. That number equates to an average of one cataclysm every eight years. With this kind of combative past, it is a wonder that any buildings are still left standing atop this stricken plateau. Yet a multitude of architectural wonders rise proudly on Castle Hill today. This speaks to the long period of peace that has occurred since the end of World War II. It has now been 73 years since a shot was fired in warfare atop Castle Hill. No one could have known that when the guns fell silent on February 13, 1945, ending the Red Army’s victorious siege of Buda, that this would conclude seven centuries of warfare. At least for now.

To the naked eye of tourists, all those withering assaults on Castle Hill might seem to have disappeared without leaving so much as a trace. A closer look reveals the ghosts of warfare elegantly hidden behind fashionable facades. The most noticeable traces can be discerned by a probing eye coupled with an investigative intellect. Armed with foreknowledge of the various iterations that were built to imitate the past, a visitor can see the hints of a deeper history exposed in plain sight. A good example of this are the many deliciously colored coated Baroque houses lining the Castle District’s streets. These Baroque beauties sport nary a bullet hole, then again looks can be deceiving. Each of these houses were elegantly reconstructed after the Second World War. Sources indicate that when the Siege of Buda ended, only five of the houses left on Castle Hill were still habitable. Due to the extensive damage and exorbitant cost, reconstruction was not completed in the area until the 1980’s. The wartime destruction did have one unintended benefit, many elements of Gothic and Renaissance architecture were unearthed and then incorporated into the reconstructions.

Bullet holes in Buda's Castle District - War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Bullet holes in Buda’s Castle District – War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Lack Of Defense – A Monumental Reminder
As thorough a reconstruction as the buildings on Castle Hill have undergone, there are still scars of war in the form of bullet holes to be found. Ironically, the most prominent of these is located at the former Ministry of Defense building where Szinhaz utca runs into Disz ter. This rather non-descript, neo-Baroque styled building stands halfway between Buda Castle and Matthias Church. Tourists rushing back and forth between those two splendid structures often overlook the war damaged building. They fail to notice the monumental reminder of warfare confronting them. Yet the building is pockmarked with unmistakable evidence of the siege. It offered a poignant moment for me when on my first visit to it. I ran my hand across a stone wall and dug a finger into one of the gaping bullet wounds. Here was a tangible trace of gunfire from either a Soviet or German weapon. It was the ultimate outcome of an ideological struggle between fascism and communism, an outcome that spit itself out the barrel of a gun.

The bullet that made this large indention, like tens of thousands of other bullets fired in the Castle District, was meant to maim or kill. Instead, it struck stone, leaving an unforgettable impression in a future age.  An age of peace and prosperity that belonged to another world, the one in which I was lucky enough to now live. This present world had hardly anything in common with the world of war which had transmitted this bullet hole to me. I have never felt so close and so far from war as when I dug my finger into the lasting remnants of that cataclysm.

A new coat of paint - The Castle District today

A new coat of paint – The Castle District today (Credit Elsa rolle)

An Age, An Idea, An Empire – Dying at the Hands of the Next
The building’s integrity as a still standing, non-reconstructed monument to the fire and fury of the apocalyptic siege of Buda is now threatened by a government planned reconstruction. Last time I visited, fences kept visitors away from the building’s walls. Nice and neat, elegant and classy might soon replace the power of real that resides in this place. If the walls are redone, if the memory of war is erased, then the only reminders of Castle Hill’s destructive history will be confined to hidden niches or buried beneath a thousand cobblestones. What will be lost is not just evidence of one siege, but a connection to all the conflicts that have plagued this magnificent plateau’s past.

There is something about seeing the actual place where hellish events happened that causes a person to contemplate the horrors of war. The thought of what it must have been like to fire a gun or hide from a hail of bullets, to kill or be killed, a hundred thousand times over, that can be enough to make the most courageous person recoil at the idea of using combat to settle affairs of state and ideology.  For the course of empire or the pursuit of power, that was the way eighty-six worlds ended atop Castle Hill. In that maze of medieval streets, one age or idea or empire died at the hands of the next. And it kept going on and on and on, until 704 years of history and misery came to a halt in 1945. Let us hope it never happens again. The history of Castle Hill shows that it will.

Click here for: A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

Signs Of Their Times – Chasing Ghosts In Kispest (For The Love Of Hungary – Part 2)

Exploring Hungary in-depth meant getting far off the tourist track. This led to several problems. The foremost of which was my inability to converse with the locals due to language barriers. For this same reason, written literature was off-limits. This put me far from my comfort zone. Thus, I was left to observe and interpret everything I saw. Certain patterns became visible. A rather obvious one concerned the naming of streets. Whether in an outlying district of a major city or a tiny village, I began to see the same names used again and again. While walking around Budapest’s 19th District of Kispest, I became fascinated with the names of famous Hungarians adorning the street signs. Some names were instantly recognizable, others I had to spend time researching. It occurred to me that these names offered clues about Hungarians and who they considered worthy representatives of their history. Street names are spoken thousands of times each day. They help order and organize travel routes while also serving as signposts to the past. The names are reflective of those whose achievements have gained them eternal notoriety in the pantheon of prominent Hungarians.

Arpad utca - In memory of the man who started it all

Arpad utca – In memory of the man who started it all

The Latest & Greatest – Two Thousand Years In The Making
The roll call of Hungarian greats could be seen on signs plastered upon fences, houses and street corners all over Kispest. Names familiar and foreign confronted me on every corner. A litany of lionization more than two thousand years in the making. The names were markers, not just of people, but also progress. They went all the way back to the very beginning, before the idea of Hungary even existed. I spied a sign with the word Pannonia. This was the Latin name for the Roman province that once covered present-day western Hungary. Magyars did not exist at that time, at least not in East-Central Europe. They were still eight hundred years away from arrival, their ancestors wandering out on the Asiatic steppe. The co-opting of Pannonia as a place name in modern Hungary was understandable. It linked the nation to ancient Rome’s imperial might. The suggestion being that it was not a coincidence that Hungarians and Romans had settled in the same area.

Hungarian history began with Arpad utca (utca means street in Hungarian). Little is known of the man whose name has become a byword for Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. That has not stopped this tribal chieftain from becoming one of the most famous Hungarian historical personages of all time. Arpad was elected leader of the Magyar tribes heading westward. He then spearheaded their arrival in 894 AD into what would become Hungary. His name was given to the dynastic family (House of Arpad) which ruled Hungary during its first four centuries. Arpad also unwittingly provided his name to a street in Kispest, as well as to hundreds of other streets in Hungarian towns. What he accomplished is mostly lost in a distant past, when legends were just as powerful as the truth. In some ways, the same could still be said today.

Bathory utca - A Family, a King & Blood Countess

Bathory utca – A Family, a King & Blood Countess

Greatness & Darkness – From Inspirational To Dreadful
Soon I was onto more solid historical ground with Kossuth and Petofi utcas. Both men were titans of the Hungarian Revolution that took place in 1848-49. Their dreams were thwarted by the Habsburgs, but their vision and legacy lived on It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a place in Hungary that has not been graced by their names. Kossuth the politician and Petofi the poet can be found in every city, town and village. They even kept their places in the pantheon during communism. Long after these two men and their dreams died, Hungarians never forgot them. How could they? From Kispest to Kecskemet, Kossuth and Petofi are deified in every conceivable way. From statues to squares and street names. Their omnipresence a fact of daily Hungarian life. These are two men who will forever inspire Hungarians. Conversely, there are others whose names represented both greatness and darkness.

The famous Hungarian family Bathory was a name that seemed a bit strange to find adorning a street in Kispest. The Bathory’s were exalted aristocracy while Kispest is working class to its core. I sat and stared at a Bathory utca sign for close to a minute. Bathory was a name that had dreadful connotations. The mere mention of it sent ominous chills surging up my spine though it really should not have. The name referred to King Stephen Bathory, who rose from Prince of Transylvania to King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, ruling as a strong, wise leader. Unfortunately, the Bathory that I and most foreigners have in mind when they see that name is Elizabeth Bathory. She was the Blood Countess, who by some scholarly estimates murdered more girls than any female serial killer in history. Her name is still evocative of horror despite four centuries of distance from her crimes. Here I was standing hundreds of kilometers from where those murders happened. It was a sun splashed day in a humble neighborhood in Kispest, but the Bathory name still had a chilling effect. Elizabeth made the kind of history that has blackened the Bathory name forever.

My relief in leaving Bathory behind was only momentary as I would soon come across Nadasdy utca. Nadasdy’s similarity to the word nasty is coincidental, but the Nadasdy for which this street was named could rightly be called nasty, in the extreme. Ferenc Nadasdy was none other than the husband of Elizabeth Bathory. He is also a hero in the Hungarian pantheon, past and present, for his warfare fighting capabilities against the Ottoman Turks. He fought both valiantly and violently for the Hungarian and Habsburg cause. Defending Christendom with a fervor that was less spiritual and more diabolical. Termed the Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy lived up to that nickname, both on the field of battle and across his vast landholdings. He and his wife were known to punish servants in the most bestial of manners. Gaining satisfaction through a variety of tortuous methods. At least Ferenc was able to take out much of his rage on the field of battle. It was said that he danced with the heads of Turks, after defeating and then beheading them. His martial exploits were worthy of a great commander, his domestic deeds the preserve of a despotic mind. Nonetheless, he is glorified in Hungary today as a national hero, while his wife goes unmentioned for obvious reasons.

Nadasdy utca street sign - Kispest, 19th District

Nadasdy utca street sign – Kispest, 19th District

Fame & Infamy – Possessed By Power
There were more famous names to come, Hunyadi and Rakoczi, Batthyany and Kisfaludy, Zichy and Bercsenyi. On these street signs each of them could live on forever. Many had possessed great power during their lifetimes. In the afterlife they still held power, this time over streets and cityscapes, squares and monuments. A reminder of what Hungarians could achieve both good and bad. Along the streets of Kispest, a pantheon of Hungarian heroes lives on in both fame and infamy. These are the ghosts of greatness past.

Click here for: The Wekerle Estate – Transylvania In Kispest (For The Love of Hungary – Part 3)

Symbolism Versus Semantics – The Czech Republic Or Czechia: A National Name Calling

One of the more bizarre legacies of Eastern European communism concerns the Czech Republic or as a few still insist on calling it, Czechoslovakia. This was brought back to me not long ago when I met a gentleman whose surname was Czech in origin. When I asked him to confirm his ancestry, he nodded in the affirmative. He then proceeded to tell me that his ancestors had immigrated to the United States prior to World War I from “Czechoslovakia.” This statement left me rather bemused. Czechoslovakia did not exist at any point in European history until after the First World War. It was only a nation state for relatively short periods, from 1918 – 1939 and 1945 – 1992. Anyone immigrating to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the land now known as the Czech Republic would have had no conception of Czechoslovakia. Instead they would have stated as their land of origin an empire rather than a nation-state. In this case, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would have served the purposes of bureaucratic paperwork when they entered the United States at Ellis Island.

Official paperwork aside, Czech immigrants to America might have known their homeland as either one of the two historically Czech regions, Bohemia or Moravia. As for Czechoslovakia, it lay in a future most had yet to imagine. An American of Czech descent can be forgiven for their confusion over the current name of the Czech nation. They are not the only ones suffering from confusion. That is because the nation’s name is still being openly debated today. Surprisingly, the citizens of the Czech Republic are divided on the subject.  The choices have now come down to either Czech Republic or Czechia. There is no third option, a la Czechoslovakia, for the simple fact that after the Velvet Divorce in 1993 that geopolitical concoction ceased to exist. It quickly became an anachronism, relegated to the dustbin of history. The Czech Republic became the new name for the Czech nation and that is where the controversy began in earnest.

Simply Stated - The Czech Republic

Simply Stated – The Czech Republic (Credit: High Contrast)

Crawling Slugs – A Nation Not By Any Other Name
Low level controversy over shortening the Czech Republic’s name simmered for years. Many Czechs, including some very famous ones, looked askance at using Czechia, which is an anglicization. In the Czech language “Czechia” is “Cesko” (pronounced Chessko). Among those opposed to the use of “Cesko” was the great Czech politician and playwright Vaclav Havel. He memorably stated that it conjured up images of “crawling slugs.” The consternation over naming conventions really took hold in 2016 when Czech leaders asked the United Nations to list Czechia as the official short version of Czech Republic. Their reasoning had as much to do with symbolism as semantics. It was thought that a shorter name would improve the nation’s image as it would be easier to remember and not lend itself to confusion. Not surprisingly, anecdotal rather than empirical evidence was offered as to how usage of the “Czech Republic” was hurting the nation’s image abroad.

The proposed change left many scratching their heads. What was so confusing about the name Czech Republic? Many Czech nationals and most foreigners found the issue difficult to understand. Admittedly, use of “Republic” in the name fails to distinguish it from many other nations. On the other hand, the Czech Republic was the only European nation in which “Republic” was part of the name’s common form. This anomaly set it apart from other European nations who eschewed their official name when it came to common usage. For instance, “Slovakia” is verbal shorthand for “The Slovak Republic”. By trying to impose Czechia on both nationals and foreigners, Czech leaders were following in the footsteps of their former Slovak partners.

Mouthful of Slugs - Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Mouthful of Slugs – Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Image Is Everything – Cross Cultural Confusion
Unsurprisingly, the changeover to Czechia was met with thinly veiled resistance. Critics of the change found it rather ridiculous. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that much of Czech officialdom failed to embrace the change. This led to cross cultural confusion. For instance, the Czech Embassy in the United States continued to refer to their nation as the Czech Republic, while the U.S. State Department took to calling it Czechia. Such discontinuities were self-defeating, led to greater confusion than ever before and made the whole naming issue seem academic. It is little wonder that the Czech Republic continued to be favored by many in common and official usage, including by this writer. My reason for favoring the Czech Republic was just as absurd as the ongoing debate. From a personal and quite superficial standpoint, Czechia did not sit well with me precisely because it looks and sounds like Chechnya, that ill-fated Russian region. The word conjures up images of a war-torn land marked by violence, terrorism and ethnic tensions. Anyone who has spent time in the Czech Republic knows that it is the opposite of that image.

One argument for changing the name does ring true, it would put the Czech Republic in line with the many other nations which have both official and officially shorter versions of their name. The former being used for bureaucratic purposes, the latter in day to day conversation and the media. This often suits convenience. For instance, no one except bureaucrats ever refer to Germany by its yawn inducing official title of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Russian Federation is known to all except technocrats and legalistic types as Russia. To say otherwise makes one sound officious. The same was true of Russia’s immediate forebear. The Soviet Union was never termed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics except by diplomats, apparatchiks and ossified members of the Politburo. Official names are usually too long and ponderous. The Czech Republic is one of the rare few that is short and rather simplistic. Czechia is even more so, but it is at the disadvantage of being a latecomer to the national name game. As such it now enjoys co-official status, but not common usage.

Powerful Reminders – A Republic In More Than Name
Whether or not one agrees with the many Czechs who think Cesko sounds less than desirable, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that it has too much in common with the Czecho of Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs would rather forget the bad old days of totalitarianism. Anything that serves as a reminder of that time is anathema to an overwhelming majority of the Czech population. Today they live in a republic of which they take great pride. Maybe that is why so many of them prefer to clearly and unequivocally state the Czech Republic as their nation’s name.


Chronic Absenteeism –Eastern Europeans Abroad: In Search Of Opportunity

I first became cognizant of Eastern Europeans heading abroad to pursue better economic opportunities 17 years ago while working for a summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Many seasonal stores and shops there employed Latvian students who looked by turns bemused and perplexed at finding themselves spending a summer far from the Baltic Sea. Instead they were on a barrier island along a stretch of distant American shoreline. I distinctly remember talking with one bored looking Latvian girl who was sequestered behind a gas station cash register. When I revealed a bit of my knowledge about her homeland, she looked at me as though I was crazy. Small talk was not her thing. She was there to earn money to tide her over for the coming year at university. The infusion of Latvian seasonal workers to the Carolina coast was nothing compared to what I experienced during my five years living in Wall, South Dakota.

High Plains Drifters – Eastern Europe in Western South Dakota
Wall is home to the world famous Wall Drug, a tourist hot spot par excellence. The drug store’s main claim to fame are its signs which dot interstates in all directions, hundreds of miles in advance of this kitschy attraction. Wall Drug signs can be found in such far flung locales as the North Pole, Nairobi and Amsterdam among many other places. In my travels, I have never seen a Wall Drug sign in Eastern Europe, but that has not stopped the drug store in recruiting legions of workers from these nations.  In that tiny town on the high plains of South Dakota there were Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgars and Macedonians. Enough ethnic diversity to rival the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was settled down for a long, hot summer on the wind blasted landscape of rolling grasslands. I availed myself of the opportunity to hang out with these student age workers and discovered that several had already spent other summers away from their homelands.

Most of them hoped to eventually move abroad after they completed their degrees. Case in point, a young Polish woman who had worked the two previous summers in Wales. Her first job was working in a factory that mass produced baked goods. Putting dollops of cream on top of cakes paid more than many professional jobs did in Poland. Her mother held a decent government job in Poland but pay was mediocre and the work mind numbing. Cake factory work was no one’s idea of excitement, but the pay was worth it. She remarked that bartending in an English pub paid more than any job she could find back in Poland. Eventually after graduating university, she moved to Wales, found a good job and married another Pole who was there for the same reasons.

Rule Britannia - Eastern European living in Great Britain

Rule Britannia – Eastern European living in Great Britain

En Masse Emigration – Going West
The phenomenon of meeting Eastern Europeans far from their homelands continued on a trip around western Turkey several years later. It was there that I met a very nice young couple by the name of Andrew and Agnes. They were from Australia, or at least that was what I first thought. The couple had met while Agnes worked an internship in Australia, she was originally from Hungary. They had married not long before and spent the first year of their marriage on the island of Jersey in the English Channel due to her husband’s job. Agnes related her experiences of a winter spent living in relative isolation, suffering through endless, drenching rainstorms. This was not how she remembered life in Hungary, but she went where her husband’s work took her. A few years later I made the acquaintance of a would be Hungarian filmmaker. To support his projects, he was forced to find IT work, not in Hungary but Great Britain. He went there for the better wages. Working part of the year in Britain was more lucrative than a full-time job in Hungary.

Then there was my wife. Prior to our marriage and her emigration to the United States she spent a couple of summers working well-paying jobs at English language schools in Britain. When we met, she was considering moving there. One of her best friends worked for the United Nations and took a two year position in Jordan because it paid better than the one she had in Hungary. Another emigrated to Canada and immediately found a good paying job, soon thereafter she joined Toronto’s middle class. The more Hungarians I met, the more I realized how many upwardly mobile ones were leaving the country. This should not have been surprising, but it was for me. The media – especially in Great Britain – had been full of stories for years about Poles descending on their country in droves. There were fears throughout Europe of the dreaded Polish plumbers and legions of Romanians and Bulgarians emigrating en masse in search of economic opportunity.

The Rich Get Richer – Westward Flows The Course Of Emigration
Knowing so many Eastern Europeans who had left, were leaving or planned to leave their homelands personalized the situation for me. I began to wonder how these countries could possibly replace all that talent and brainpower, the short answer is that they cannot. Many of their best and brightest have headed abroad in search of a lifestyle that their parents could only have dreamed of. The stultifying corruption of post-communist governments in Eastern Europe forced those without insider connections to emigrate to richer, westernized countries where their job prospects would be based on achievement and merit. This emigration, mainly to the most economically developed European Union member nations, is unprecedented in the history of Eastern Europe.

According to the United Nations, fully 6% of Eastern Europe’s population emigrated between 1992 and 2015. That figure computes to an 18 million people, equivalent to the combined population of Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania. All that human capital is hard at work in western countries, innovating, creating and producing. The rich get richer. Meanwhile Eastern Europe fights to maintain its place in an increasingly globalized world. Strides have been made in many Eastern European countries to lure talent back home or keep it from going abroad. Trying to reverse a quarter century of emigration from east to west will take time and most importantly, money.