A Terrifying Poignancy – Randolph Braham: Encyclopedias Of Sorrow (Part Three)

It took twenty years of painstaking work for Randolph Braham to research and write his seminal work on the Hungarian Holocaust. In 1981 that two volume, 1,269 page study, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust of Hungary was published. It set a standard that has never been surpassed. Braham’s work was a product of extreme thoroughness, with the emphasis on extreme. He presented a massive amount of information within the framework of a compelling narrative. It showed how the Holocaust came about and then was carried out in Hungary. The book was then, as it is today, the premier reference work on the topic. That is because it was based upon thousands upon thousands of hours of research from a wide variety of sources in multiple languages. Collecting and assimilating the research was one thing, it was quite another to organize it into a coherent whole. Braham did this with considerable skill. The incredible amount of detail found in the two-volume, thirty-two chapter work cannot be understated.

A Nightmare During Daylight - Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Nightmare In Broad Daylight – Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Resurrecting Truth – From Darkness Into Light
It is hard to fathom how one person could have the intellectual capacity, ambition and passion to do this much academic research, then carry it to conclusion after two decades of work. A monumental amount of patience and effort was needed to complete both the main narrative, as well as four appendixes, a ten page long chronological timeline of key events, seven page glossary of terms and an index three times that long.  All this added up to the most comprehensive coverage of the Hungarian Holocaust ever put down on paper. The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators would have been astounded to discover that anyone would go to such lengths in cataloging their crimes. Their efforts to destroy the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews tragically succeeded, but those same efforts to destroy history failed miserably. Braham singlehandedly reconstructed the Hungarian Holocaust from archives in Europe and the United States. He turned out to be the ultimate antidote to those who had tried to erase the Jewish presence in Hungary.

Braham was relentless to the point of obsessiveness. This allowed him to resurrect history that many felt was better off left buried. Braham delineated the actions and intentions which led to the destruction of a large proportion of Hungarian Jewry. His work left the guilty nowhere to hide. They could be found in the pages of his two volume classic. To immerse oneself in such dark subject matter for years on end took someone of great mental stability. Braham never broke down under the strain of his research and writing. It would surely have been easy considering the subject matter. He readily admitted to being consumed by a mission. Stating in his characteristically direct style, that “My function is to pursue the truth.” That pursuit meant going to extraordinary lengths in order to ensure the truth was brought from darkness into the light.

Braham’s work was a duty to the memory of those who were murdered, as well as a gift of knowledge to future generations. The only way not to repeat one of the gravest sins in history was to educate and illuminate. In this Braham succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. The Politics of Genocide was more than a book, it was also an artifact that would provide scholars, students and other interested parties the knowledge needed to understand the how and why of the Holocaust. To give future generations the correct information to help them fathom how an entire race of people could be murdered for no other reason than who they were. Braham made the unfathomable understandable. Few have performed such a feat of historical scholarship. The most incredible thing was that Braham was just getting started. There was more, much more from him to come.

Randolph Braham - The Scholar of Hungarian Jews' Sorrow

Randolph Braham – The Scholar of Hungarian Jews’ Sorrow

The Forces Of Fascism – A Mania For Deportation
The culmination of Braham’s decades of research on the Holocaust were brought to fruition with the publication of The Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust In Hungary. These three volumes were published in 2013, over three decades after the Politics of Genocide. The Encyclopedia managed to go into even greater detail than Braham’s previous works. He acted as the editor and primary contributor, while at the same time overseeing the efforts of twenty other scholars who contributed articles. The volumes once again relied on Braham’s hallmarks, intensive research from a wide range of sources. If there was a source worth reading than Braham or the other contributors read it. A brilliant mind, Braham brought together the intellectual brainpower that could handle the enormous task of documenting 600,000 Hungarian Jewish lives being lost in less than a year.

A withering array of details were documented. This included information concerning the Holocaust’s effect on even the tiniest of villages. There were many entries for places with only a handful of Jews. The scores of villages affected were given space in the text alongside cities. Such minute details from remote villages made for a terrifying poignancy. Arresting and deporting Jews meant scouring villages in the most remote areas of Hungary. The mania for deportation knew no bounds. Jews in tahe Hungarian countryside suffered more than most. The once serene countryside was stalked by the forces of evil for months on end. No Hungarian Jew was safe from the forces of fascism. Braham’s work showed that the devil really was in the details.

A Nightmare During Daylight - Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A Nightmare During Daylight – Hungarian Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Truth Sitting On Shelves – A Life’s Work
Randolph Braham’s work on the Hungarian Holocaust was done to ensure that the world would never forget what happened to the Jews of Hungary during the latter part of World War II. Because of Braham many people have not forgotten, but others have managed to dissemble, misremember or deflect blame. That was why in 2005, Braham returned his Order of the Star of Romania. Less than a decade later, he did the same with his Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. It was unconscionable for Braham that nationalist governments were misrepresenting what had really happened during the Holocaust. Braham had explicitly outlined this history in his works. If only the present generation could bring themselves to read and study his books. The truth is sitting on shelves all over Europe and the United States awaiting rediscovery. That was Braham’s great gift to the world, if only we could accept it.

Click here for: From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

Like so many others, Adolf Abraham discovered that you can never go home again. That was because when he returned to his hometown of Dej in northwestern Transylvania he could not find most of the people or life that existed there only three years earlier. While Abraham was there in a physical sense, something deeply spiritual was missing. His hometown and the vibrant Jewish life that had been such a part of it was now gone forever. As for Abraham, it might be said that he had come back from the dead. Comparatively few in the town’s once strong Jewish community could say they were that lucky. Their destiny had been much darker. In 1941, Dej’s Jewish population was 3,719, at the end of the war only 239 were left. There had been almost as many Jewish traders in the town before the war, as survivors after it. The community had been ravaged by the Holocaust. For Abraham, returning was risky.

The Red Army and communists were beginning to tighten their grip on Romania. Hungarians in northern Transylvania were viewed with barely veiled hatred due to Hungary’s takeover of the region in 1940 and the ethnic atrocities that had followed. Hungarian Jews were viewed with skepticism and suspicion. The Romanians were not likely to trust anyone who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue. Hungarian Jews were in the worst position possible. They had lost trust in other Hungarians after what had happened during the Holocaust. Friends, neighbors and fellow citizens had turned on them. If it happened once, it could certainly happen again. Their situation was perilous. As for Abraham, he returned home long enough to complete his primary school exam. After that there was no reason for him to stay in Transylvania, Romania or Eastern Europe. He counted thirteen relatives who had been murdered in the Holocaust. Jewish Dej in its pre-war form no longer existed. The roots of Abraham’s former life in the town had been almost entirely extinguished. It was time for him to leave.

The Horror - Romanian workmen examine an exhumed body of a Jew killed in the ghetto in Dej

The Horror – Romanian workmen examine an exhumed body of a Jew killed in the ghetto in Dej (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum courtesy of Randolph Braham)

A Massive Undertaking – Years In The Making
Abraham soon left Romania for good, joining a Transylvanian friend traveling to Budapest. From there he made his way to the American Zone in Berlin. It was in the bombed out postwar German capital where his language skills were in demand. He procured a job as a translator for a refugee program administered by the U.S. Army. It was not long after this that he entered higher education for the first time, attending university in Munich. It was here that the first phase of his life, the one which had been most deeply affected by the war, came to an end. Family, friends and the place he called home had been eradicated by the Holocaust. The only thing left were memories, many of them nightmarish. Later, they would provide fuel for his ambition to study the Hungarian Holocaust with a scrutiny that no one could or would ever match. To unearth the documents and delineate the details that reconstructed just what had happened to the Hungarian Jews during the latter part of the war was soon to become his life’s mission. That all lay in the future. First, he would emigrate to the United States, where several of his relatives had moved in the 1920’s. Such distant connections helped him choose it over Israel.

Abraham soon sailed into New York Harbor. A whole new life awaited him, one that would largely be based upon looking back at the Eastern Europe he had left behind. In the space of four years the erudite Abraham managed to obtain bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. Almost immediately thereafter he became an American citizen and changed his name to Randolph Louis Braham. The middle name of Louis was a tribute to his father, Lajos (Hungarian for Louis), who had met with death on one of the early transports to Auschwitz carrying Hungarian Jews. He hoped the latter transformation would help him avoid the taint of antisemitism. Though much milder in America, antisemitism still had a nefarious influence on careers in academia. While the choice of name disguised his Jewishness, Braham’s scholarly intentions soon became clear. Officially, he was a political scientist with an abiding interest in comparative politics, but most of his research and academic output was heavily weighted towards the Hungarian Holocaust.  He brought a laser like focus to the topic, examining even the most minute details in order to reconstruct when, why, where and how the Holocaust in Hungary happened. This would lead to works unlike anything ever attempted before. It was a massive undertaking that involved years of tireless effort to complete.

Before The Holocaust - Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Before The Holocaust – Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Collective Horror – A Duty To Discover & Document
Randolph Braham’s life was nearly taken away by the Holocaust. He responded by spending the rest of his life researching and writing about the same event which had nearly destroyed him. His work focused on every aspect of the Holocaust in Hungary, from the years of creeping authoritarianism and anti-Jewish laws to its insidious inception that ended in gas chambers, incinerators and mass graves. A unique aspect of Braham’s pioneering work was that he not only detailed the history, but had also been a part of it. Not that anyone would have known, because only very late in life would he explicitly state that he was a survivor. Such intimate knowledge gained from first-hand experience helped him understand all aspects of the collective horror inflicted upon the Jews of Hungary. This led to a colossal scholarly output of over 60 books and ten times that many articles during a career that stretched over fifty years.

Several of his books dealt with Braham’s other passion, comparative politics. He was nearly as interested in this subject as he was the Holocaust. In certain works, he was able to integrate the two. He also proved to be a formidable opponent of the communist whitewashes in Hungary and Romania concerning the genocide of their Jewish populations during World War II. To not speak of such an evil, was a crime against posterity as well as humanity. Braham’s works made deniability that much more difficult. He cast light into the darkest recesses of Holocaust historiography in Hungary. These were the decisions, events, and places no one wanted to acknowledge. The shame was unbearable and for many it still is. Collective guilt has been something many have found it impossible accept. Whether they did or not, Randolph Braham was going to tell the world anyway. The truth was out there. He planned on discovering and documenting it. That is just what he did.

A Stranger On The Inside – Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham: The Making of Hungary’s Holocaust Historian (Part One)

A chosen few were shaped by fate, destiny and chance to survive the Holocaust. They would live to tell what they and millions of others experienced. These men and women managed to somehow avoid death long enough to outlive the war. It then became their responsibility to bear witness, catalog crimes and ensure that the world would never forget the nightmare that descended upon Europe from 1939 – 1945. This war within a war had sought to exterminate an entire people from the face of the earth. Only part of this extermination had to do with murder, another part of it sought to wipe them from the history books, to ensure that there would be nothing left to remember them by. The atrocity of historical amnesia to go alongside that of mass murder. Holocaust survivors made sure that this has not happened, foremost among them was a Hungarian Jew by the name Randolph Braham or as he was known during his early years in Romania and Hungary, Adolf Abraham.

A Way of Life - Dej Synagogue

A Way of Life – Dej Synagogue (Credit: Clara Spitzer)

Discriminating Minds – The Struggle To Belong
Adolf Abraham’s upbringing and early life gave him a unique perspective on what it meant to be an outsider. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Bucharest rather than Budapest. Soon thereafter his family returned to their home in Transylvania. He grew up during the interwar period in a Romania riven by political, economic and ethnic tensions. Fascism was on the rise. The far-right Romanian Iron Guard was on the march. It was a good thing that his family did not live in the Romanian capital, it put them further from the main forces of virulent antisemitism, but only for a little while. They were under much less threat in the Transylvanian town of Dej (Des in Hungarian). Being Hungarian Jews in Transylvania, placed the Abrahams family in a distinct minority, one that was smarting from Transylvania becoming part of Romania due to the post-World War I peace process. Hungarians had lost their central role in running Transylvania and Hungarian Jews had become something of an afterthought. Being a Jew further alienated the young Adolf from both ruler and ruled.

There was also the Abraham family’s economic situation. The family lived in dire poverty. Their house had no electricity at a time when Transylvanian winters were much more ferocious than they are today. His father was a laborer, finding work whenever and wherever he could. Life was a struggle, with education and religion the only reliable outlets. The family practiced a milder form of Orthodox Judaism. Adolf was well educated in both the faith and in academics at a Jewish school in Dej. It was a simple life with a few pleasures despite the poverty.  Then in 1940, it all began to change for the worse. That was when Northern Transylvania was stripped from Romania and handed over to Hungary due to German intervention. Though Adolf and his family spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue, that did nothing to save them from the Hungarian state’s discriminatory measures towards Jews. The avenue of education was soon cut off for him as Jews were barred from attending public schools. For the next couple of years, he completed his coursework at home.

Virtual Slavery - Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Virtual Slavery – Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Destined For Survival – Holding Out For Dear Life
The situation for Jews in Dej grew increasingly threatening as World War II progressed. In 1943, Adolf was forcibly conscripted into a Jewish labor battalion which was sent to Ukraine in support of the Axis war effort. This accursed duty turned out to be a blessing in venal disguise. While he was fearing for his life at the front, the German occupation of Hungary took place. This directly led to the Hungarian gendarmerie being utilized for rounding up all the Jews of Dej, including Adolf’s family. Both of his parents and all his siblings, except for his sister, would perish in Auschwitz. He would have likely met the same fate except for the labor battalion. What had seemed like a death sentence would end up allowing him to escape such a fate by the narrowest of margins. The situation on the Eastern Front was dire. The Soviet Red Army was soon entering Hungarian territory. Usually the labor battalion members would be liquidated when they outlived their usefulness. In Abraham’s case, fate intervened.

The collapse of Hungarian forces and attendant chaos was so swift that Adolf soon found himself in a Soviet Prisoner of War camp. While his life had been saved for the time being, the future was bleak. These camps were little more than holding areas for prisoners who were to be transported to the Gulag deep inside the Soviet Union.  Adolf did not wait for the inevitable transport to happen. Instead, he escaped with four other men. Their prospects for survival were bleak. They would now have to wait out the war until it ended. Just staying alive was a daily trial. Getting caught in Hungary would mean either a swift execution or sure death in a German concentration camp. Abraham and his fellow escapees made their way into what is today northeastern Hungary. In such a predominantly rural part of the country, the Hungarian gendarmerie did the Nazis dirty work for them. Avoiding arrest was going to be extremely difficult. The gendarmerie officers had local knowledge and contacts on their side.

Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham - Preeminent historian of the Holocuast in Hungary

Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham – Preeminent historian of the Holocuast in Hungary

The Gift Of Humanity – Historian In A Haystack
Around the small village of Nyeri in northeastern Hungary, the men found themselves forced to hide in bales of hay. A local farmer, Istvan Novak, discovered them. This turned out to be the greatest of several strokes of luck for Adolf. Novak risked his own life to save the men. If they were discovered, he too would have been executed. It was extremely dangerous duty, literally a matter of life and death. Istvan Novak did not fail these men. He would later be given the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli nation for his efforts. Without one man’s humanity and courage the Hungarian Holocaust would never have been given its greatest historian. Adolf Abraham would do more than just survive. He would never let the world forget what he, his family and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews had suffered. For that to happen though, he would have to confront the challenge of an old world destroyed one excruciating fact at a time.

Click here for: From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)

The unprecedented decline of the population in Eastern Europe during the post-communist era (1990 – present) was more than just a simple rise in death rates and drop in birth rates. Many of the best and brightest from these countries were still alive and doing well, just not in their homelands. One of the most common traits of Eastern Europeans during this period has been an urge to move westward. On more occasions than I can recount, I have been told by Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Latvians among others, that they are moving to central or western Europe as soon as possible. They are ready to turn a long-awaited dream into reality. Millions of Eastern Europeans have voted with their feet and fled to more prosperous places. The Romanians prefer Italy, Poles Great Britain, Hungarians Germany, Ukrainians Poland and Bulgarians almost anywhere but their own country. Millions of Eastern Europeans are now scattered across the continent.

This situation has been exacerbated by EU membership, for all but a few of these countries (Ukraine, Moldova and all the Balkan countries except for Croatia). The borders between East and West have all but dissolved in much of Europe – as their young, intelligent, upwardly mobile citizens flee to the west, draining their homelands of brain and manpower. Relatively few of them return for anything other than a visit. Better wages, abundant jobs and a comfortable lifestyle are what attracts them to western and central Europe. This trend has begun to abate over the past few years as more job opportunities have become available in the growing economies of Eastern European nations. The cost of living is also much lower. The migration westward has slowed, but not before it caused grievous harm to the economic growth prospects of Eastern Europe. For example, Slovakia has 80,000 unfilled positions due to skills and labor shortages. The people who would have taken those jobs are now living somewhere beyond the western horizon. Migration to the near abroad has sapped the region of millions of its most talented citizens. This trend has only added to the greatest regional population decline in modern history.

Downward Trend - Population Projections for Eastern Europe 2017 - 2050

Downward Trend – Population Projections for Eastern Europe 2017 – 2050

The Ever Deepening Decline – Future Uncertain
The reasons for the demographic decline in Eastern Europe cannot just be put down to mass economic migration. The problem is multifaceted. Start with the fact that economic hardship was a way of life throughout the 1990’s in every country east of the former Iron Curtain. The transition from communism to capitalism was a wild roller coaster ride at best. Living standards dropped as the state subsidized economic model vanished almost overnight. Unemployment soared as heavy industry buckled under the weight of international competition. Raising a family became increasingly difficult. Anyone that had thoughts of starting a family had to reconsider or do so under the most trying economic and social circumstances. Politics was fraught with instability and the future was uncertain. Just earning enough to live on was difficult. The societal instability caused birth rates to plummet. At the same time, economic woes and faltering health care meant death rates soared.

At the same time, many turned to alcohol and drugs for succor. Those who could migrate to other parts of Europe or far flung areas often did. Those left behind had to fend for themselves. The vast amount of state support that had sustained these societies over four decades was nowhere to be found. It was every man and woman for themselves. Many did not survive the experience. Those who did are to be commended. Since 1990, the United Nations estimates that the population of Eastern Europe dropped by 18 million. Nothing has ever been seen like this in a world predicated upon growth. And the demographic decline continues. In many of these countries the situation may get worse. If demographics are destiny then Eastern Europe is looking at a much less crowded future.

Fathomless Depths – Communism’s Last Legacy
The loss of 18 million people is hard to fathom, especially when the world population has enjoyed explosive -some might say frightening – growth. Eastern Europe’s population shows no signs of rising anytime soon. Currently, the region is home to the top ten nations with the fastest declining populations in the world. This situation looks primed to accelerate in the coming years. Keep in mind, these dire figures are based upon current trends and the aging of these societies. Bulgaria will be the hardest hit, projected to lose almost a quarter of its population by 2050. Ukraine and Poland are projected to lose over five and a half million people each. If one adds up the total projected population loss of all ten nations by the year 2050 it comes to almost 22 million. That would mean in a sixty-year period (1990 – 2050) Eastern Europe would have lost 40 million people. This figure is difficult to fathom and begs the question of what can be done to stop or at least slow the decline.

The region’s governments have tried a variety of policies. One of the most bizarre was a recent government campaign in Poland telling the populace to “breed like rabbits.” The statistics show they are still breeding like hermits. The campaign went nowhere. If a country as fervently Roman Catholic as Poland cannot stem the current trend, then it is doubtful any others can. There is a silver lining in this downward slide. Less people will mean more living space. As the rest of the world gets more overcrowded Eastern Europe is emptying out. Does it really matter if Bulgaria has 8.9 million people as they did in 1990 as compared with a projected 5.4 million in 2050? In the context of keeping a modern economy growing, it certainly does. Will there be enough workers to support pensioners? Most likely not. Some commentators have offered the suggestion of replenishing the population with migrants from the war torn Middle East as a possible solution. This is an exceedingly tough sell in countries that labored under Soviet occupation for over forty years. Resistance is bolstered by the fear engendered by population loss. If nations such as Bulgaria and Latvia, lose millions more people they could either cease to exist or be swamped by outsiders. These are issues no one wants to contemplate, let alone address. The only thing certain, is that the decline will continue. Communism in Eastern Europe may be over, but its painful legacy lives on.

Click here for: Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Since the collapse of communism in 1989 the quality of life in Eastern European nations has undoubtedly improved. Incomes have risen, consumer products are readily available, freedom of speech and press is now the law of the land (though there has been a great deal of backsliding on both of late) and fear of arbitrary arrest has all but disappeared. Communism was an economic, environmental and human disaster. Planned, highly centralized economies led to stagnation. Heavy industry was kept up by state subsidies. Not only was it terribly uncompetitive, but also led to environmental degradation. Human creativity was quashed. Millions were arrested and died at the hands of dictatorships purporting to represent the proletariat. Politics became an extremely narrow, toxic and often deadly business to be avoided at all costs. State sponsored corruption was endemic to the system, leading to societies where a small group of elites ruled over the masses.

Even in the countries which were ostensibly better off during this era (1948 – 1989), such as Hungary which was home to Goulash Communism and Yugoslavia where Titoism ruled with a much softer fist, the system could only be kept alive and quality of life improved (i.e. shelves with consumer products) by large loans from the western world. By the 1980’s both countries were deep in debt with economies that would have collapsed if the Iron Curtain had not first given way. And these were the supposedly successful communist countries. Yet for all this misery and the unsustainability of communism, it was also at the tail end of this era that the population of most Eastern European countries reached its greatest extent. Communism may have spread misery, but it certainly did not stop people from procreating enough to sustain the population. The same cannot be said today. While the quality of life has certainly improved, there is not nearly as much human life as there once was in these nations.

An Alarming Trend – Failure To Procreate
It is doubtful that many Hungarians would say that 1981 was a peak year in their nation’s history. At that time, Janos Kadar’s increasingly geriatric administration was in its 25th year. Hungary had attained the title of happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc” due to a decent economy and its relative openness to the wider world. Conversely, the country was still in the grips of an ossified totalitarianism that showed no sign of abating anytime soon. It was also in that 1981 that the population of Hungary hit its highest level ever at 10.7 million. Since then the population has either declined or been stagnant for thirty-seven consecutive years. In 2011 the population of Hungary dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century. It is unlikely to ever reach that level again, at least not in the 21st century.

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Hungary’s population has dropped by over half a million people. While this sounds dire, Hungary has plenty of company from other fellow Eastern European countries. In 1990, the year after the Ceaucescu dictatorship was overthrown in Romania, there was another reason for the nation’s citizens to celebrate. Romania’s population hit an all-time high at 23.2 million. Since that time, the population has fallen by over three and a half million. This is an alarming rate of decrease, due to many factors. The fact that communism could no longer keep Romanians hemmed into their own country meant that hundreds of thousands could immigrate abroad in search of better opportunities. Many have found just that and are unlikely to return.

Then there is the case of Bulgaria which does not offer any reason for optimism. People have been disappearing from this mid-sized Balkan nation since the year after communism’s collapse. The population of Bulgaria rose to unprecedented heights, an all-time high of 8.9 million in 1989. The very next year Bulgaria lost over 200,000 people. Perhaps they were obeying the tenant of that old wise saying of “getting out while the getting is good”. Amazingly, 1990 was not the most precipitous one year population drop of the post-communist period, worse was yet to come. In 2002 there were 280,000 less people in Bulgaria then the year before. In percentage terms Bulgaria has lost at least one out of every five citizens (other sources say one out of every four) since the rickety rule of long-time communist leader Tudor Zhivkov came to a peaceful conclusion.

Russian Cross - The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate

Russian Cross – The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate (Credit: Lihoborka)

Plummeting Population – Economic Growth, Demographic Decline
No Eastern European nation could escape the curse of a plummeting population, including ones that experienced a successful transition from communism to capitalism. For example, Poland has been one of the great success stories of the post-communist era. Economic reforms enacted in the early 1990’s have led to steady growth. When the rest of Europe went into recession following the financial crisis, Poland was the only country to sustain economic growth. One would assume that the demographic situation would also have been much better for Poland. That was not the case. The Polish population did increase for several years following the collapse of communism. Poland gained 550,000 people between 1990 and 1998 when the population peaked at 38.6 million. It has been all downhill from there. The current Polish population is now back to where it was in 1989. That trend will almost certainly continue in the years to come.

Further north and east the situation has been nothing short of alarming. Latvia has lost a quarter of its population since the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia almost one-fifth. Russia suffered as much or more than anywhere else. The demographic decline there has been symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Russian Cross. This is where the birth and death rates are portrayed on a line graph. In 1992 – the year after the Soviet Union collapsed – the lines crossed as the death rate exceeded the birth rate. The situation stayed that way up through 2013 until the lines re-crossed. During that time span, Russia’s population dropped by 5.2 million. Put another way, Russia lost the equivalent of Norway’s entire population over a twenty-one year period. That is more than a crisis, it is a human catastrophe. Such dire examples beg the question of what exactly have been the causes of this demographic decline in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Click here for: Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)


In The Name Of A Hungarian Statesman – Kossuth Fever: A Lost American Legacy

The state of Iowa has exactly one hundred counties, a nice, neat number that lends itself to memory. One of these one hundred counties is easy to remember if you are a Hungarian history buff. Several years ago, I was looking at a map of Iowa when I noticed Kossuth County. This immediately caught my attention. Of course, this was because the county name was the same as that of the famous Hungarian statesman and leader of the 1848 revolution, Lajos Kossuth. Immediately I knew that the county must have taken its name from him. The question was why? Either a bunch of Hungarian emigres had settled in the middle of Iowa or people in Iowa had heard about Kossuth’s democratic credentials and decided to honor him. The latter turned out to be true.

Kossuth, Mississippi - Sign along U.S. Route 72

Kossuth, Mississippi – Sign along U.S. Route 72

Famously Unknown – Remains Of A Name
In 1851 Kossuth County was officially formed. It was named in honor of the Hungarian patriot who had led the country during the Hungarian Revolution and then been forced into exile. In 1851-52 Kossuth toured the United States, including the American Midwest as a fighter for freedom and democratic values. This made him a revered figure in places where he otherwise would have been all but unknown. An outbreak of “Kossuth fever” spread across the United States. With his soaring oratorical skills Kossuth managed to make a name for himself in many American communities, especially those with large European immigrant populations. Many years later the lineage behind the county’s name was forgotten. The original inhabitants who had helped form Kossuth County died off. Those who came after them gave little thought to the cause of Hungary or for that matter, a politician who never saw his ideals come to fruition.

A few months after discovering Kossuth County on the map, I considered taking a trip to visit it. Before deciding whether to travel there, which would have required a six hour round trip drive from where I was then living in eastern South Dakota, I decided to call the Kossuth County Historical Museum in Algona, Iowa. I wanted to inquire about what, if anything, they had in the way of exhibits on Lajos Kossuth. A friendly female voice answered the phone. I proceeded to ask her if there were any Kossuth themed exhibits or artifacts in the museum. She replied that “we always knew the county was named for a famous Hungarian, but that is about it.” Our ensuing conversation, in which she communicated that they had nothing in the museum about Kossuth, dissuaded me from a potential visit. I soon forgot about Kossuth County, Iowa. At least until a couple of weeks ago when I was driving through the northern extremity of Mississippi.

Kossuth County Historical Museum - Algona, Iowa

Kossuth County Historical Museum – Algona, Iowa

Magyar In Mississippi – The New Hope
I was with my wife and mother on a trip to the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh in southern Tennessee. The quickest route to drive there from Memphis was to dip down into Mississippi along US Route 72, head eastward toward the city of Corinth and then turn north on another highway. The weather was poor that day, with intermittent rain showers falling from a gloomy sky. At times the rain degraded visibility to the point that I had to concentrate more than normal for safe driving. About five miles east of Corinth, I spotted one of those green signs denoting an upcoming turnoff for a nearby town. On the sign was a single word, Kossuth. I did a double take, then quickly pointed it out to my wife. We both agreed that taking a picture despite the inclement weather would be a good idea. Soon we were doing a U-turn followed by another U-turn, pulling over by the roadside and taking photos. I was zealous enough to chance my life by walking along the roadside to get in position for the best possible photo. Then I snapped several pictures. Our time was limited so we decided not to take the ten-minute detour to Kossuth. Instead, we satisfied ourselves by later doing research on the history of the town’s name.

The town of Kossuth, Mississippi was founded in the 1840’s. It was originally named “New Hope”. In 1852, the town’s named was changed to honor the Hungarian patriot Kossuth. It has kept that name ever since, giving it a quixotic claim to fame.  This is about the only thing memorable about a place that is home to only 209 inhabitants. I doubt anyone in the town has given much thought to Kossuth, but perhaps one day they will rediscover him. Kossuth in America has quite a naming niche that spans several states. There are other towns named for Kossuth in Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. There is an entire Historic District in Dayton, Ohio that also bears his name. While Lajos Kossuth may seem like an unknown or at best an extremely obscure historical figure to Americans, that was not the case in the 1850’s.

Dress parade of the United States Army in New York for Lajos Kossuth - December 6, 1851

Dress parade of the United States Army in New York for Lajos Kossuth – December 6, 1851 (Credit: E Perczel)

The Great Orator – Something To Talk About
In 1851 the United States Congress authorized Kossuth to enter America. Ironically, he was transported to American shores by the U.S.S. Mississippi. Massive crowds gathered to greet him upon arrival in New York City. He was seen by many as a latter-day George Washington type figure, fighting to advance the cause of freedom and liberty.  From New York he went on to Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capitol he became just the second foreigner to ever address a joint session of Congress. (A bust of Kossuth can be still found in the Capitol today) Kossuth then proceeded to go on a speaking tour of New England, the South and Midwestern regions of the United States. He hoped to garner support for the cause of a democratic Hungary that would break off the shackles of Austrian rule.

His efforts soon went awry after he started making his opinions known on American politics. Officials began to see Kossuth as a threat. He failed to denounce slavery and supported the pro-slavery presidential candidate Franklin Pierce. By the end of his speaking tour, the warm welcome had grown cold. He was soon traveling back across the Atlantic Ocean to England. He would never set foot again on American soil. Today, his legacy in America consists of a few town names scattered across the interior parts of the United States. The people who live in these communities say the name Kossuth hundreds of time each day. Unfortunately, few of them have little idea who he was or what he stood for. Such are the vagaries of history.

Surreal Shores – A Golden Dawn On The Bosphorus: The Orient Express By Boat (Part Four)

The passage by steamship from Varna to Constantinople was anything but romantic. For those who had traveled from the glitter and dazzle of Paris to the surreal shores of the Black Sea by train, the voyage across the water to Constantinople was a decided letdown. The passengers avoided the deck at all costs. A view of the sea was not worth chancing a confrontation with the throngs of refugees. The only thing standing between the bourgeois passengers and this primitive proletariat was a timber barrier and rope. The potential confrontation never took place as the passengers practiced the virtue of avoidance. They resigned themselves to “smoking” in their cabins. The smoking came not from cigarette or cigar smoke, but from a billowing black cloud emitted by the burning of low quality coal. Soon it had pervaded every compartment. Meanwhile the flat keeled Espero was battered and lashed by choppy waves in the tumultuous sea.

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Wikipedia)

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Credit: Wikipedia)

Technological Touchstone – A Question of Time
The ship had launched from the jetty in Varna at dusk. Just after the sun went down the temperature plummeted as an autumn chill gripped the air. A nice meal was prepared for the Orient Express passengers, but most of them were not in the mood for fine dining. This voyage was more about suffering than it was style. All the money in the world would not bring them greater comfort until they washed up on the shores of the Golden Horn at Constantinople the next morning. This watery journey would take a total of 14 mostly excruciating hours. The Orient Express had been a technological touchstone, but the Espero was a reminder of the way things used to be and still were for many travelers who had no choice but to travel by ship. Those who were fortunate enough to make this inaugural journey would be part of a relatively rare travel breed, a small group of people who had successfully completed the Orient Express route by train, ferry and steamship across land, river and sea. This cumbersome system using three types of transport would be the standard until 1888 when the Orient Express’ final rail links were opened in Bulgaria.

What the inaugural voyage gained in adventure by using such disparate modes of transport, it lost in time. Time was of the essence when it came to the Orient Express. The original timetable for the Paris to Constantinople trip showed that it should take 81 hours and 14 minutes. The inaugural journey ended up taking less than that, clocking in at 80 hours. Considering all the stops for ceremonies and side trips the Express had probably done much better than could be expected. Five years later, when the journey could all be done by rail the time was cut to 65 hours, saving over half a day. What made the journey by boat from Varna so ponderously slow was the weather. The open sea was an untamed wilderness of seemingly infinite space that ate away at the ship’s speed.

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

An Astonishing Sight – The Glory Of Constantinople
The Espero, was buffeted by a strong northeasterly wind that limited its average speed to just 12 knots (14 miles per hour). Thus, it is not surprising that the journey took from dusk to dawn for the ship to cover the Black Sea portion of the voyage. The passengers may not have enjoyed much of this seafaring adventure, but the final hours of it were nothing short of spectacular. The Espero entered the Bosphorus strait just as the sun rose. It was an astonishing sight. All the glories of ancient, medieval and more recent history were there for the viewing on both sides of the Bosporus. The ship passed by the rustic medieval castles on the European and Asian hillsides built to guard the entrance to the Bosphorus by the Ottomans. Both of the Sultan’s splendid palaces at Beylerbei and Dolhambache could be seen. The most marvelous sights were the domes and minarets that came into view from the city’s historic core. The ship entered the Golden Horn that morning, just as the city was coming to life.

A more dramatic entrance to one of the world’s greatest cities could not have been planned. All the troubles of the steamship voyage had been worth it. In a few more years, travelers on the Express  would not be able to have the same incredible experience. At the quayside, passengers were greeted by the Belgian Ambassador and some Turkish officials. The Belgian ambassador was there because the brainchild of the Orient Express was Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a Belgian banker. Nagelmackers had traveled with the Express on this inaugural journey. He must have felt an incredible satisfaction when he saw his dream of speedy and reliable transport with first class service connecting western Europe to the near east finally come to fruition.  The passengers had to be just as satisfied. In the process of this journey they had become part of history. Thousands of trips would take place on the Orient Express over the next one hundred plus years, but only one would ever be the first.

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century (Credit: Tristram Ellis)

A Palace Of Transport – Many Happy Returns
The Orient Express passengers were transported by fiacre to the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople. They would relax in luxury. It is doubtful that the Pera’s refinement could best that of the Express. The Compagnie des Wagons-Lits which provided the cars and staff had set a high standard for service that was soon to become legendary. The Orient Express would become forever synonymous  with glamorous travel. The passengers who had just made the inaugural journey could certainly vouch for the focus on high quality customer service. They would get the same treatment on their return trip. The journey would seem shorter since there were no kings or queens to meet, no ceremonial welcoming committees, no officials to press the flesh and no side journeys to state of the art exhibitions. The return journey was more in line with what the Express would become, a palace of transport gliding along the steel rails of western, central and eastern Europe on its way to the mysterious Orient.

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

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

The adventures for those taking the inaugural Orient Express continued late into the night at Bucharest. They were taken by fiacre to dine in the city. This came at the tail end of their longest side journey. A journey that had already resulted in a 300 kilometer round trip train ride into the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, a walk through a torrential downpour on a muddy road in boot deep mud to a bizarre reception where they met King Carol and Queen Elisabeth of Romania. The passengers had gotten much more than they had bargained for since arriving in Bucharest early that morning. And their eventful day was not yet finished. When they got back to the city, a very late dinner was in order. They were now at a point beyond exhaustion. It was after midnight when the train pulled out of the Gara De Nord. Bucharest was soon to become an afterthought as they fell into sleep. The Express was now headed southward toward the Danube, on the other side of which was Bulgaria.

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

Heightened Suspicions – A Cold Greeting
The final stop in Romania would be Giurgiu set on the north side of the Danube. The town had been held by two empires (Ottoman and Russian) and one nation (Romania) at separate times over the past half-century. It looked the worse for wear as none of its occupiers had seen fit to repair the extensive war damage. In Giurgiu the passengers would exit the Express so they could be ferried by steamship across what the French journalist Georges Boyer called “the yellow waters”  of the lower Danube.  In later years the Orient Express would go by land all the way to Constantinople, but in 1883 the construction of a railway link through Serbia and Bulgaria was still being negotiated. This route would not be possible until 1888. That meant the latter part of the Orient Express journey would take place first across a spur line in northern Bulgaria and then via steamship from the Black Sea port of Varna to Constantinople.

Romania was exotic and rough around the edges, but Bulgaria would turn out to be downright wild. Bulgaria was a land of danger, tension and political intrigue. Only five years before, it had gained independence from the Ottoman yoke after the nasty violence of the Russo-Turkish War. The newly formed nation had yet to recover. It was ruled by an elite clique of Russian officers whose main duty was to keep it under the ostensible control of the Tsar.  The city of Ruse stood opposite Giurgiu on the south bank of the Danube. It still bore many scars from the fighting and was unappealing. The passengers were given a formal, but cold greeting at the station. The Russians were suspicious of the Orient Express’ intent, since it provided a strategic link between Bulgaria and western Europe. Tsarist officials saw this as a threat to the Russian sphere of influence. The upshot was that the Orient Express clientele was given an indifferent welcome before boarding another train that would deliver them to Varna.

The First Orient Express from the French publication L'Illustration

The First Orient Express from the French publication L’Illustration

A Brush With Anarchy – The Bulgarian Countryside
The passengers were glad to see Ruse fade into the distance as the train began to head eastwards. Soon a new fear came to occupy their imaginations, the threat of banditry. The train was now crossing a hard-bitten, dusty landscape. Instead of houses, there were hovels. Mud rather than stone or brick was the main building material. It was mixed with timber to produce homes that had not advanced in construction since the Middle Ages. The only markers of civilization were solitary mosques with minarets piercing the autumn sky. This was a society stuck in a medieval level of development. The peasants were not far removed from serfdom as they tried to scratch a subsistence living out of the earth.  In such a quasi-primitive state, crime had the potential to pay much more than hard work. This was not lost on the passengers, several of whom brandished firearms ready to fend off any attempt at robbery. Stories were told of how bandits captured stations along the route, robbed officials and attempted to burn them alive inside the structures.

The Orient was turning out to be much more anarchic than anyone could have possibly imagined. There would be no problems, at least not on this train, but the tension would not subside, even when they arrived on the shores of the Black Sea.  The only stop between Ruse and Varna was the depressingly ramshackle town of Sheytandjik. It lived down to the Turkish meaning of its name, “Little Devil”. Alone and exposed out on the poverty stricken frontier, it suffered from the lawless chaos that plagued the Bulgarian countryside. Sheytandjik was a strange place to stop for lunch, but it was on the schedule. The partridge served up to them was nearly indestructible due to its rubbery consistency. This was not so much lunch, as it was an endurance contest to see who could finish any part of it. A delicious repast of Turkish desserts did go some way in ameliorating memories of the main dish.

Roundabout - The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

Roundabout – The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

A Seething Mass – Into The Black Sea
At Varna the rail journey came to a rather depressing end. Beggars and officials were the only one there to greet those travelers from the Orient Express. They would now board a steamship, the Espero. It was run by the Austrian Lloyd-Triestino Shipping Company and had sailed from the port of Trieste in Austria-Hungary several weeks earlier. The final stretch of the journey would be to Constantinople by way of the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus Strait, a distance of almost 300 kilometers. The seagoing voyage would be fraught with tension. This was due to some extra passengers who had been sold tickets allowing them to travel on the ship’s deck. These were Turks who had lost their homes and property due to the Bulgarization of the countryside. They had been living in subhuman conditions for quite some time, as was apparent from the body odor which wafted over the timber barrier which kept this seething mass of refugees from coming into contact with passengers of the Orient Express. The Turkish men looked at the wealthy foreign travelers with undisguised hatred. The passengers recoiled in horror. This was bound to make for a memorable voyage to Constantinople.

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

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

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

At the Iron Gate

At the Iron Gate (Credit: Lazlo Mednyanszky)

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

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

Peles Castle in autumn

Peles Castle in autumn (Credit: TiberiuSahlean)

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

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

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

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

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

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

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

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

From The Orient Express With Love – Secret Agent Man: Following In James Bond’s Footsteps

My initial interest in the Orient Express in Eastern Europe did not come from Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene’s thrilling novel Stamboul Train. These outstanding literary thrillers were not to my liking as a teenager. Instead my fascination with the train and its route came to me through the movies. As a teenager I fell in love with the early James Bond films. They offered a powerful sense of place to viewers. One of my favorites quickly became From Russia With Love. The locations showcased or spoken of in the film brought into my consciousness for the first time the European side of Istanbul, the heart of Yugoslavia as well as an Italian border city by the name of Trieste. The coup de grace came with Venice, where the final scenes were filmed. These cities and the train trip to or through them was enough to send my imagination soaring. I never forgot them or the film that first brought them to my attention.

Later in life, I would have the opportunity to visit each city shown in the film, sometimes going to the exact same locations where the movie was made. This was either entirely accidental or the fulfillment of a subconscious yearning, all done in the service of feeding an interest in exoticism. I did not know do this in a single trip, but across several. Piecing together a From Russia With Love city setlist. I only realized it was complete a couple of years after my last visit. In a sense I was a spy, keeping a private watch on these highly personal places. I might never travel the old Orient Express in its entirety or become a secret agent, but the places were still there. It was an astonishing feeling, to look back after multiple trips realizing what I had inadvertently accomplished. I had visited these venerable and famous stations where the Orient Express was never to return.

Simplon Orient Express poster

Simplon Orient Express poster

Murder, Mystery & Mystique – Danger On A Train
From Russia With Love can be viewed as an homage to the Orient Express. This was not what the filmmakers intended, but the train ended up just as much a character in the film as any of those played by the actors. The Express and several stations where it stops play a large role in the film’s latter half. Bond travels on the train with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as they attempt to make their way west to safety with a Lektor cryptographic device. All the while they are pursued by a death dealing operative of the international criminal organization, SPECTRE. The train scenes are replete with romance, drama and adventure. The compartment and restaurant cars are lavish while the setting is full of mystery and intrigue, nowhere more so than the train stations at Istanbul, Belgrade and Zagreb.

At the train station in Istanbul, Bond and Romanova make their getaway while pursued by a Russian agent. In Belgrade’s station, Bond tells the son of a Turkish colleague that his father died under conflicting circumstances. Then at the Zagreb station, Bond is due to meet a fellow 00 operative on the platform. Instead he is met by the Spectre agent sent to murder him. From Russia With Love’s compelling storyline is dramatically enhanced by the Orient Express and the stations encountered along the route. I would only later learn that the route was not that of the original Orient Express, but an offshoot. The first run of the Orient Express occurred in the autumn of 1883. Necessity, popularity and geopolitics eventually led to the creation of other routes in the years between the World Wars. The most popular of these was the Simplon Orient Express which began in 1919.

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Path To Progress – Into The Balkans & Beyond
It was the Simplon Orient Express route which Bond and Romanova travel during From Russia With Love, this time going from east to west. The Simplon was also the route famously followed in Christie’s murder mystery. The name Simplon was taken from a rail tunnel that was opened in 1906 below the Simplon Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. This tunnel made a new railway route to Europe’s eastern frontiers feasible.  In 1912, the Simplon route which already ran from Paris to Lausanne, through Milan and then to Venice, was extended to Trieste, Austria-Hungary. This service might have been called the less than Orient Express.

Fighting in World War I, along the Italian Front led to the closure of rail service to Trieste, as battle lines encroached on the route. The Simplon would be reopened and greatly expanded in the years after the war ended. The expansion was a result of the postwar peace process. The western powers needed a rail route to Eastern Europe that avoided Germany and what had formerly been the lands of Austria-Hungary, which were now two separate nations struggling with economic chaos and political upheaval. Thus, the Simplon would continue eastward from Trieste (now an Italian city) into the heart of the Balkans, going through Zagreb, Vinkovci and Subotica towards its final stop at Bucharest. Another spur headed from Vinkovci to Belgrade, where it divided again, going either to Athens or Constantinople (the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was formed). It was in Istanbul that Bond and Romanova made their initial getaway, boarding at Sirkeci Station. Romance and danger awaited them.

Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express

Symbol of Quality – Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Into & Out Of Trouble – Route Of Least Resistance
The Simplon Orient Express was the preferred travel route for the wealthy, politically connected, intellectually refined and haute bourgeoise during its heyday. Agatha Christie traveled it many times with her second husband, an archeologist. It would not have been uncommon for high ranking diplomats or spies to be found onboard as well. This was especially true during the Cold War. Intrigue and danger were an exception though. One that proved the Simplon was a vital lifeline for businessmen, politicians and tourists during decades of east-west tensions. It may not have been the “original” Orient Express, but it was just as worthy. The fact that spurs of the Simplon led to Venice and Athens only added to the fascination with it. James Bond knew this was the easiest route back to safety. It was the path of least resistance for him, as well as for generations of Europeans. The Simplon may not have been the original Orient Express, but it just might have been better.