The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)

Reading Baedeker on Transylvania one gets the sense that the town of Des (Dej, Romania) had a great deal going for it in 1900. It was a “Royal Free Town, capital of the county of Szolnok-Doboka.” The adage of location, location, location best explains Des’ prominence. In their first sentence describing Des, Baedeker makes this clear, stating that the town lies “at the confluence of the Great and Little Szamos”. The town was a meeting point in more than one way, as it was located where the Transylvanian Plateau and Transylvanian Plain meet. A confluence point for rivers, transition zone for land forms and junction on an important travel corridor, Des was always a highly strategic point.

The town also greatly benefited from its proximity to salt deposits. Its supply of “white gold” was one of the most coveted commodities throughout its history. Evidence suggests salt was being mined from the deposits as far back as Roman times. A Roman road and settlement were both located in the area. For centuries, the Szamos River acted as a natural highway for salt to sprinkle out from the area to larger markets. The river’s role in transporting trade goods brought many tradesmen and travelers to the town. Once the railroad arrived in the latter part of the 19th century, many more people arrived and departed throughout the day. Some of these would have been travelers brought by Baedeker to the town.

Snapshots of Des in 1902 - From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Snapshots of Des in 1902 – From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Regime Change – The Harsh Hands Of Oppression
Many things have changed in Dej since Baedeker’s 1900 edition was published, one that has not is the paltry range of accommodation on offer. Baedeker lists two hotels worth staying at in the town, today TripAdvisor lists a grand total of three. Modern travelers have the additional drawback of not being able to dine at Des railway station restaurant which has long since disappeared. More substantial changes have taken place in the town’s population between then and now. The transformation of Des (Hungarian) to Dej (Romanian) is more than the superficial shuffling of a couple letters in the Latin alphabet. Baedeker remarks that Des population of 7,700 is “chiefly Magyar”. According to the 1910 census (the earliest one available online), 70% of the residents were Magyar and 26% were Romanian. In addition, there were over 400 Saxons. Today nearly nine out of ten people in Dej are Romanian, just 11% are Magyar while the Saxons have almost all vanished.

There is no mention of Des’ Jewish population in either Baedeker or the latest census (2011) for Dej. During the era of Austro-Hungarian administration, the Jews of Des were counted in with the rest of the Hungarians, because other than Yiddish, Magyar was their most common language. Thus, the Hungarian portion of the population was boosted by several thousand. There are only a handful of Jews left in Dej today. This is due to the catastrophic effects of the Holocaust followed by the resulting post-war immigration to Palestine by survivors. For good reason they no longer felt welcome in the town. It was Hungarian officials under German guidance that prosecuted the Holocaust in northern Transylvania (part of Hungary from 1940 – 1944) with such deadly malevolence. Ironically, Hungarians would soon feel the harsh hand of oppression during the Ceaucescu regime. In this way, the persecutor became the persecuted. The upshot is that Dej became a Romanian city, not only by nation, but also by ethnicity.

Rising Above All - The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

Rising Above All – The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

The Nature Of Transylvania – From Rural Idyll To Rural Disillusion
One thing that has not changed in Dej is the Calvary Reformed Church, an impressive work of Gothic architecture. Baedeker referred to it as a “Handsome Protestant Church of the 15th century”. This splendid edifice became a model for the many wooden churches found throughout Romania today. It was constructed over a seventy year period straddling the 15th and 16th centuries. A seventy-two meter tower was added in 1643. Since completion, it has become a soaring symbol that rises above everything else in the town. The church was well worth a stop in 1900 and still is today for any traveler interested in architecture. Baedeker’s text on Des also mentioned the nearby settlement of Decskana, a few kilometers to the southwest. The salt that brought Des most of its wealth derived from mines in this location.

As Des was the approximate midpoint of a journey between Klausenberg and Bistritz, it was also where the railway carriages were changed out. This made it a good place for the traveler to stretch their legs and enjoy a meal before embarking on the final half of their journey. When the train rolled back out of the station it began to head eastward. Now traveling along the Upper Szomas River Valley’s right bank, the scenery would have been lovely in the spring, summer and early autumn with cultivated fields in the surrounding countryside and low mountains hovering in the northern distance. Villages were a constant reminder of the rural nature of Transylvania. In 1900, the landscape between Des and Bistritz was much like it is today. The only major development in the countryside at that time and still today is agriculture. In 1900 this was a land only beginning to grapple with the demands of an industrial age. That age never really arrived, at least not in a sustainable sense. The railroad was possibly the greatest innovation to ever arrive in this area. It has carried and continues today to carry many locals away from rural Transylvania in search of greater prosperity elsewhere.

Renaissance Man - Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 - 1629)

Renaissance Man – Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 – 1629)

In The Beginning –  An Ancestral Residence
The latter half of the journey to Bistritz passed through many small villages and at least one larger town of note, Bethlen (Beclean, Romania), the “ancestral residence of the Bethlen family”. That surname denoted one of the most famous and powerful families in Transylvanian history. The Bethlen family provided Transylvania with its greatest leader, Gabor Bethlen, who ruled as Prince of Transylvania from 1613 – 1629. Prince Gabor reigned over an unlikely Renaissance in his homeland. Prince Bethlen’s Transylvania enjoyed nominal independence during a time when the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires were carving up what was left of the Hungarian Kingdom.  In 1900 the Bethlen name was still spoken with reverence and not just from a historical perspective. As the 20th century began, the Bethlen’s were still one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Hungary. In the coming years, Istvan Bethlen, would become Prime Minister of Hungary (1921 – 1931). He eventually died in a Soviet prison after World War II. His fate was not unlike that of so many other Transylvanian aristocrats. As for the town where his ancestors first realized their destiny, it is still there. Like so much in Transylvania it did not change very much, but the world around it certainly did.

Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

War changes everything or so it has been said countless times. Reading Baedeker’s 1900 description of Klausenberg (present day Cluj, Romania) I could not help but be struck by how much had changed in the city since the guide was written. These changes were the products of many historical forces, most prominent among them war and revolution. They transformed many aspects of the city beyond all recognition, while others such as the historic architecture survived the tests of terror and remained largely intact despite intermittent periods of turmoil. Though most of the buildings still stand – as either originals or reconstructions), the way many of them are viewed and interpreted has also changed. One of the best ways to understand these changes is by updating Baedeker’s description of Klausenberg and its sites.

Darkness on the edge of Cluj - Hungarian postcard of Kolozsvar in 1940

Darkness on the edge of Cluj – Hungarian postcard of Kolozsvar in 1940

The Place Stays The Same – The City Constantly Changes
The first sentence of the description states that: “Klausenberg, a town with 34,500 inhabitants, on the Little Szamos, founded by the Saxons in 1272, is the seat of the county of Kolozs, of a Reformed and a Unitarian superintendent and of a Magyar university (since 1872).” Among the revisions now needed for this sentence include the city name, which is now officially known by its Romanian name of Cluj-Napoca, though most residents just call it Cluj. The latter half of the name was added in 1974 when Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu decreed that Napoca be added to Cluj’s name. This add-on was a reference to a pre-Roman settlement in the same area as the city. Ceaucescu wanted to stoke nationalistic sentiments to distract from his utterly corrupt, venal regime. Klausenberg, the city’s German name has become a distant memory, as are the Saxons who founded or re-founded (depending upon your historical perspective) the town. According to the 2011 Romanian census there were only 544 residents of German ethnicity left in Kolozsvar.

Just as Kolozsvar officially became Cluj, so too did the county name change. Kolozs County, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary vanished after World War I.  The city then became part of Cluj County in Romania. Such name and administrative changes may seem superficial, but they are expressive of the extent to which Cluj has been transformed from a majority Hungarian to a majority Romanian city in the space of five generations. The Magyar University to which Baedeker refers was then the Hungarian Royal University and has now morphed into the Babes-Bolyai University, which provides tertiary instruction in the Romanian, Hungarian and German languages. It is today considered to be one of the top 700 universities in the world and has been an incubator for talented young professionals who have helped Cluj become one of the wealthiest cities in Romania. A welcome change from decades of internecine academic and administrative warfare to make the university’s education program exclusively taught in either the Romanian or Hungarian languages.

Changing Spaces - Courtyard of the Banffy Palace Art Museum of Cluj

Changing Spaces – Courtyard of the Banffy Palace Art Museum of Cluj

Becoming History – Grand Balls, Lavish Lifestyles & Illicit Romances
Further into the text, Baedeker adds a bit of local color when it states that, “Being the headquarters of the numerous noblesse of Transylvania, the town is very animated in winter.” The aristocrats have now all disappeared from Cluj. The memories of their grand balls, illicit romances and lavish lifestyles of haute couture that came shimmering to life on snowy Transylvanian evenings have faded from living memory. Those who were not wiped out by land reform in the 1920’s ended up suffering an even worse fate when the communists took over in the late 1940’s. They suffered wholesale looting of their estates, exile, sentences in prison camps or even death. There are still traces in Cluj from the waning days of the aristocratic belle epoque, most prominently on the west side of Piata Unirii where the Baroque styled Banffy Palace still stands today.

Baedeker does not mention the Banffy Palace and why would they? It was still a residence for one of the most powerful families in Transylvania when the guidebook was written. Today it is a tourist attraction that houses an exquisite gallery of art, consistently rated as the best on display in Romania outside of Bucharest. The palace’s transformation only took place because the aristocracy is now history in Transylvania. Becoming part of history sounds like a fascinating exercise in pseudo-immortality, but in truth it often involves catastrophic upheaval. It took a great deal of tumult in the first half of the 20th century for the Banffy Palace to no longer play host to winter balls. Now it is full of tourists brought there by guidebooks of which Baedeker was a forerunner.

Soaring Towards Another Century - St. Michael's Church in Kolozsvar in 1898

Soaring Towards Another Century – St. Michael’s Church in Kolozsvar in 1898

The Matter of Facts – Discrepancies, Documentation & Details
One thing that has certainly not changed in Cluj since 1900 is “the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael” which is the centerpiece of what is known today as Piata Unirii. It is the propulsive heart of modern Cluj just as it was for pre-World War I Kolozsvar. In the early 1990’s this same area was known as Piata Libertaii, in 1900 its official name was Matyas Kiraly ter (Matthias Corvinus Square). Baedeker referred to it as “the market-place”. Despite the constant name changes, the church at its center has remained throughout the city’s history as an excellent example of Gothic architecture, a Saxon hall church extraordinaire. Baedeker gave the dates of its construction as 1396 to 1432. For a guidebook that prided itself on getting every detail correct, the Baedeker text on Klausenberg has several errors. The cathedral’s construction took place from 1347 to 1487.

Baedeker also incorrectly lists the date of Klausenberg’s founding by the Saxons as 1272. The best documentation found to date lists the date as 1275. It is easy to point out the errors in Baedeker, but such discrepancies are understandable. It is likely that the authors were going by the best information available to them. The research for the guidebook was done mostly on the ground or at large libraries with the best resources available at the time. Experts were enlisted to help with each section. No matter how much expertise and scrutiny were given to the text, such information as historical facts and dates can be just as riven by change as the city was during the 20th century. New information and sources have come to light that change the facts upon which Cluj’s history is based. A guidebook like Baedeker that was the single best guidebook of its day is now an artifact. It too has become part of history.

Click here for: Apahid, Aristocrats & Armenians -Klausenberg To Szamosujvar The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Five)