The Lonely Bibliophile of Budapest – Dani’s English Bookshop: Reading The World Away 

My bi-annual Hungarian travel pilgrimage always involves a trip to my favorite English used bookstore in Buda. Amid all the atmospheric architecture and quaint, picture perfect Baroque townhouses found in the Castle District stands a small bookselling business located at Orszaghaz 18. Signs attached to gated shutters adorning either side of the entrance state:  English Book Shop * Second Hand. Below these signs are books enclosed within glass cases. Above the entrance in fading letters the word Vadaszbolt is written.  Literally translated from Hungarian the word means “Hunters store”. All traces of the Hunters store have disappeared except for the ghost sign. Taking its place is Dani’s English Bookshop, an eclectic establishment with an incredibly eccentric owner. I have met Dani, or at least the man I assume is Dani, on many different occasions. He sits in the back corner of his one room shop staring intently at a book. Every couple of minutes he turns the page. The only time he looks up from the book is to greet a customer with a single word, “Hello”. He makes very little eye contact after this initial interaction.

A Whole New World - Dani's English Bookshop

A Whole New World – Dani’s English Bookshop

A World Unto Himself – A Strange Sort Of Shopkeeper
Almost invariably, I am the only person in Dani’s English Bookstore. That certainly does not make Dani any more aware of my presence. He is a study in complete indifference. Dani’s attention is focused on one thing, finishing the page he is reading so he can turn to the next one. His attention is never fixed on the customer. This makes him a strange sort of shopkeeper, even by Hungarian standards of customer service. One thing I love to try with Dani is engaging him in conversation. My attempts are met with either an uncomfortable silence or a quizzical glance. For the longest time, I have wondered whether Dani might be hard of hearing. He does not seem to understand or care about anything I say to him. Dani might also be suffering from poor eyesight. While reading books, I noticed that he holds them very close to his face. So close, that he could turn the pages just by exhaling. Oddly, he never wears glasses.

Dani is the most intense reader I have seen. The look on his face is of a man totally engrossed in another universe. Nothing other than the book in his hand seems to matter. For Dani, words are to be read, not spoken. Besides the obligatory hello, his only other words are the amount due for a purchase. As soon as the sale concludes, Dani goes back to reading whatever book has captured his interest. Saying goodbye or good day or any parting words in Hungarian fails to elicit so much as a mutter. The term “character” and Dani are synonymous. The last few times I visited Dani’s bookstore was mainly so I could be ignored by him. He has become a Budapest institution in my mind, more so because Dani sticks out like a sore thumb amid the exalted streets, smart shops and overpriced tourist traps that inhabit so much of the Castle District. His prices are totally reasonable, he is not pretending to be anything other than what he is, an inveterate reader with little interest in anything other than books. In short, Dani is a world unto himself.

The Curiosity Shop - Statistics of Centuries

The Curiosity Shop – Statistics of Centuries

Hidden Gems – A Booklover’s Life
I have often wondered what motivates Dani. Obviously, it is not meeting people or customer service. Studying Dani’s dis-shelved clothing, intensely focused stare and lack of social skills, I figured running a bookstore must be a way for him to pursue his twin passions of reading hundreds of books each year and being left alone. The bibliophile life is a solitary, if somewhat enviable existence. It takes someone unique to open a store day after day for years on end, sell a smattering of books and read their days away. I just wish Dani’s knowledge was communicable. Since picking Dani’s brain about his favorite books is impossible, I spend my time perusing the stacks while trying to discern what topics interest him most. History takes up a good deal of space in this small store, thus that might be Dani’s favorite subject. As for my favorite, I go to Dani’s specifically looking for the proverbial needle in his Hungarian section’s bookstack. That is because Dani’s store brought me one of my favorite Hungarian books of all time, Statistics of Centuries (Statistical curios in the Hungarian history) by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. The fact that I found this hidden gem has kept me coming back for more.

Statistics of Centuries is not the kind of book meant to be read straight through, from the first page to the last. Instead, it is the type of book that can be perused at one’s leisure. It is broken up into four sections: 1) The Millennium in Brief 2) Society in the 19th and 20th Centuries 3) Economy in the 19th and 20th Centuries and 4) Regions, Counties, Towns, Villages. Each section is chock full of statistical and historical nuggets on every aspect of Hungary. The only drawback is the date of publication, 2002, which makes the most current information (1990’s onward) a bit dated. It is enlightening to open the book to a random page and see what fact catches the eye. For example, on page 25 I find a chart showing the proportion of the Hungarian electorate that votes, only 56% did in 1998. This was disconcerting, coming less than a decade after the collapse of communism. So much for the love of democracy. On page 88, I learned that the top two causes of death in Hungary – Heart Disease and Malignant Tumors – did not change between 1948 and 2000.  Of the top eight causes of death listed, the most notable entry was liver disease which came in at #5 in 2000. It did not appear on the 1948 list. Alcoholism represents a clear and consistent danger to Hungarians.

Pull Up A Chair - Orszaghaz Utca on Castle Hill in Buda

Pull Up A Chair – Orszaghaz Utca on Castle Hill in Buda

Random Fashion – Finding New Directions
One of the most fascinating charts in a book full of them, is the “Frequency of draws Five -Lotto Numbers” for the first six months of 2001 found on page 112. I had no idea such information was readily available. Of course, the numbers are supposedly generated in “random fashion.” I have never played lotto in Hungary, but I hope that if I ever do, I will draw a 64 (most drawn) over 63 (least drawn) out of the 90 potential numbers. This information may seem nonsensical to some, but it is the type of hard data that stimulates my mind. There are also narratives, recording the history and associated statistical curios from each of the 19 counties in Hungary. I feel like every time I open Statistics of Centuries a multitude of enlightening details come my way. I have Dani to thank for helping me find all these new directions. I just don’t think he would appreciate me telling him so. Such is the life and legacy of the lone bookseller. I expect to see him again soon and be met with indifference. Nothing will please me more.

Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

March 15th is the preeminent date in modern Hungarian history. As such, it has also become one of the most important national holidays in the country. The date is when the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. The revolutionaries began the day by marching through Pest reading aloud Sandor Petofi’s National Song (Nemzeti dal) along with their 12 Points for reform in response to the onerous rule of the Habsburg-led Austrian Empire. The most famous event of that day was a mass rally at the newly completed National Museum. There was another event that day atop Castle Hill in Buda which is much less well known than it should be. The culmination of this event was the release of a Hungarian freedom fighter whose egalitarian ideals and democratic radicalism was as much an expression of the revolution, as his liberation from prison was representative of the changes suddenly brought on by the revolution.

Mihaly Tancscis - Statue by Imre Varga

Mihaly Tancscis – Statue by Imre Varga (Credit: Globetrotter19)

A Surfeit Of Surnames – Gate To The Past
Go anywhere in Hungary and you will find a surfeit of surnames gracing the streets of cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods. Make a name for yourself in Hungarian history and it will become a street name somewhere in the country. Sometimes streets in famous districts do not always have the most familiar names attached to them, at least not famous to a westerner such as myself. This was the case with Mihaly Tancsics utca, which begins just off Besci ter (Vienna square) then runs along the northeast side of Castle Hill and ends not far from the Matthias Church. I knew nothing about Mihaly Tancsics and most guidebooks did not devote any space to explaining who he was or what he had done. I figured that Tancsics must have done something of historical importance to have his name given to one of the main streets on Castle Hill. What I did not realize, until I later did my own research, was just how much of Tancsics remarkable life story was connected to this area.

Mihaly Tancsics can be found just below the walls that still guard the northern side of Castle Hill today. I walked right past a statue of him, barely taking the time to notice that it had been placed not far outside the Vienna Gate (Becsi kapu). I had no idea who he was or what he had done to gain such a spot. He was portrayed wearing a cloak that covered the upper half of his body. In his right arm he held several books. It was an odd representation, open to interpretation because of his portrayal in such a benign manner. It did little to make me want to learn more about Tancsics. Considering what I would later discover about his life, this was a shame. The fact that a statue of Tancsics stands just outside the Vienna Gate is ironic. In a sense he has finally been freed from the confines of the Castle District. A place where he spent two different periods of his life imprisoned behind walls there.

Jozsef Barracks - The building where Mihaly Tancsics and Lajos Kossuth were imprisoned

Jozsef Barracks – The building where Mihaly Tancsics and Lajos Kossuth were imprisoned

A Restless & Radical Hungarian – Simmering With Discontent
From its very beginnings as the seat of Hungarian power in the 13th century right up through today, most people have come to the Castle District by choice. Mihaly Tancsics was different, he was brought here against his will. Most people, including myself, would like to spend more time in the Castle District, Tancsics would have preferred to spend less. Yet now Tancsics is commemorated just outside the gate that once guarded the road between Buda and Vienna. A Vienna that was home to an administrative apparatus that held the power of life, death and imprisonment over Tancsics beginning in the mid-1840’s. This was a time when Hungary had grown increasingly restless under Austrian rule. Tancsics was both restless and radical. He wrote and printed pamphlets that propagated ideas that were a threat to the powers that be. Prior to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 he advocated for universal suffrage, an abolition to serfdom with little to no compensation for landlords and equal rights for all.

Tancsics used the power of his pen to disseminate these ideas for publication. And he enjoyed the additional asset of authenticity. The fact that his parents were serfs and he had an intimate understanding of their struggle made his writings that much more powerful. Tancsics was a self-made man, who had managed to work his way up the ladder of life, from weaver to school teacher. He then proceeded to travel across much of Europe on foot. These life experiences gave him a unique perspective on the problems faced by the working and lower classes in Hungary at that time. The Austrian authorities had Tancsics arrested in 1847 for his writings. His ideas were too radical, especially in a Hungary that was chafing under imperial authority and simmering with discontent. He was imprisoned in the Jozsef Barracks on Castle Hill.

Memorial plaque to Mihaly Tancsics on the Joszef Barracks where he was imprisoned

Memorial plaque to Mihaly Tancsics on the Joszef Barracks where he was imprisoned (Credit: Janos Istok)

Further Than They Had Ever Gone Before – Rallying A Nation
The building in which Tancsics was confined still exists today. Ironically, it can be found on a street in the Castle District now named for him. In a room on the street side of #9 Tancsics utca, Mihaly Tancsics spent the year before revolution broke out in prison. Two plaques adorn the wall of this building, one tells how Lajos Kossuth – one of the most famous men in Hungarian history – was also imprisoned in the structure during the 1840’s. The other, just two windows down from the entrance, commemorates Tancsics’ imprisonment.

In Hungary both men are well known, but Kossuth’s fame transcends borders. He is an icon of Hungary and his portrait can be found in many English language history books on Modern Europe. Kossuth’s name and face are synonymous with the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He is the historical standard bearer, along with Sandor Petofi, of the fight for Hungarian independence from the Austrians. And yet Tancsics was much more in touch with the common man, the uneducated, the serfs and wage laborers. Most Hungarians in the 19th century had more in common with Tancsics than Kossuth. And Tancscis, not Kossuth, was the focus of specific events on March 15th which rallied the masses to go further in revolt than they had ever gone before.

Click here for: The Re-emergent Revolutionary – Mihaly Tancscis: An Eccentric Iconoclast (For The Love of Hungary – Part 10)

 

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)

What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

Listen to the audio cast:  What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

Much of the fighting at the end of the siege took place on Castle Hill in Buda. Today bullet holes from the final stages of battle still pockmark the facade of the former Military Ministry building which stands equidistant between Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. Such battle scars have been left as a physical reminder of the ferocious fighting throughout this area just before the siege’s end. The building could now be easily repaired, unlike the damage that was done to the bodies and psyches of thousands left in the city as the siege neared its end. Many of those who stayed behind, spent their final days in the ground directly beneath the Castle District.

What Lies Beneath
The Buda Castle district contains over six miles of underground passageways, known as the Labyrinth. During the war these were used by approximately 20,000 German and Hungarian soldiers as shelter from the constant bombardment of the Soviet Air Force and artillery. As the circle around the defenders continued to close, this area became as much a tomb as it was a shelter. The Castle complex was one of the last areas to surrender.

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Following the failed breakout attempt on February 11th, those left behind included about 5,000 Hungarian soldiers. Many of them lay among the thousands of badly wounded, unable to leave makeshift, underground field hospitals. The Hospital in the Rock – which can be visited today – was one of several subterranean areas beneath the hills of Buda, that held the wounded, infirm and those brought to the very edge of sanity by the siege.

Even the magisterial grandeur of Buda Castle, had become a house of horrors. In its cellars lay a couple of thousand wounded. These included many who had been wounded in the failed break out attempt only a day earlier. One medical officer, Werner Hubner, described the scene as where “sheer madness ruled. The weeks of encirclement had driven everybody to the brink of insanity….Pistols were going off in every corner of the huge underground infirmary: nobody wanted to be captured by the Russians in a wounded state.

Unfathomable Scenes
Soon the infirm and starving were roused and consequently enraged by the discovery of large amounts of food that had been withheld from them by their commanders in the underground chambers. One non-commissioned officer happened upon the now vacant bunker of the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, found his uniform and decided to wear it. He was soon shot dead by a furious soldier who had mistaken him for the commander. And where was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch? This “leader” who had neither the courage to disobey Hitler’s futile orders to holdout or the bravery to lead the breakout, was busy on the morning of February 13th surrendering himself to the comparative safety of the Russians. As a commander he would be held as a prize of war, his soldiers would not be so lucky.

Meanwhile, the situation in the cellars continued to devolve into a morass of suicide, death and despair. By the time of the surrender, it was too late for many. For days afterward, those left intact in body or mind witnessed scenes that are even now hard to fathom.  Medics were reduced to doing surgeries in an underground hospital that contained a large store of ammunition. A shootout took place among two combatants who made their way into the makeshift hospital. The discharges from their firearms set the place ablaze. The fire spread rapidly, as shells and grenades began exploding. Flames engulfed everything in the hospital, including the patient’s straw beds. This tragic incident was one of many that were all too common in the final days of the siege.

Places to visit: Castle District, Hospital In the Rock

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Five, The Break-Out, pgs. 201 – 256.

Hubner quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 242.
Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s uniform story from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 243.
Shootout in underground hospital from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 244.

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