The Unknown Transylvania – Des to Zilau By Rail: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Seven)

Baedeker was the first English language guidebook to deal extensively with more remote and less visited areas of Eastern Europe, including Transylvania. The seven itineraries provided for that region in the 1900 version of their Austria-Hungary Handbook For Travellers focused on journeys between such larger towns as Klausenberg, Bistritz, Hermannstadt, Fogaras and Kronstadt*. The itineraries did not stop there, they provided details and sites of interest for places along the chosen route. Baedeker also went one level deeper with detours into the countryside.

These itineraries within an itinerary were offered for the most adventurous. They would often begin from smaller towns found along the main route. The town would have a branch railroad line that could take travelers into a rural netherworld of smaller towns and atmospheric villages. Allowing them to see places that had not changed very much since medieval times. In some cases, the only thing different were the steel rails now running across this land which lay beyond the forest (Transylvania literally means the land beyond the forest). Rails ridden by an iron horse that transported a few wayward foreigners to a world entirely different from anything they had ever known before. What was this world like? With the 1900 Baedeker Austria-Hungary as a guide it is time to find out.

Riding the rails - Train at station in Transylvania

Riding the rails – Train at station in Transylvania (Credit: fortepan.hu)

A Detour From Des – Into The Wild
It is 1900, an Englishman is traveling from Klausenberg to Bistritz and his name is not Jonathan Harker. The Englishman’s name is not known and never will be, but he must have been an adventurous spirit to make it this far abroad. Transylvania is just coming into the consciousness of European travelers, it takes a good bit of courage to strike off into a land that few foreigners have ever seen or heard of before. A land of wild nature and diverse ethnic groups adhering to their own exotic centuries-old customs. A land where English is barely spoken and the closest thing to it is German, a rudimentary knowledge of which is essential. Our traveler has made it to Des (present-day Dej, Romania), the halfway point on the tour route provided by Baedeker. From Des, an off the beaten path is offered. On page 406 of that 1900 Baedeker guide to Austria-Hungary a couple of secondary itineraries are given in smaller type. The first of these is a 63 mile (100 kilometer) journey from Des (Dej) to Zilah (Zalau).

The trip by train between these two towns was slated to take a little over four hours. A steam engine would be pulling a few passenger carriages up the Szamos (Somes) River Valley. A trip that would have been well worth it, if for no other reason than to see the stunning nature. The usually sober, fact laden literary style of Baedeker gives way in this mini-itinerary to spasmodic descriptions of an enchanting natural world. There are “wooded slopes and fissured cliffs” “lofty embankments and deep cuttings” to be seen. The train glides along rails close to the Szamos. Our traveler must have realized just how lucky they were to see such scenes of spectacular nature. It is difficult to overestimate the revolutionary effect rail travel had upon Transylvania. Areas once accessible to a select few born in these areas, were now open to the wider world. Furthermore, while rail travel of that era may have been slow, it was quite comfortable. This type of travel was a kind of luxury that the middle class could increasingly afford.

Glimpses Of Past & Future – Rural Skyscrapers & New Settlers
What would our English traveler have thought of those rustic villages that the train passed through on the way to Zilau? About half an hour after leaving Dees, the train arrived at Kacko (Catcau) which stood on the right bank of the Szamos. The village was sizable, with over two thousand people, four-fifths of whom were Romanian. Our traveler would have glimpsed several spires of churches in Kacko. These were then, as they still are today, the skyscrapers of Transylvanian villages. As the tallest, most well-built structures they express one of the most important tenets of village culture, religion. Though Kacko’s history dated back to the mid-14th century, more recent history had been made near the town. Only fifty years before Hungarian troops led by Polish General Joszef Bem fought a battle close to Kacko in their unsuccessful campaign to fee Hungary from Habsburg rule.

Further along the valley was Nagyilonda (IIeanda) where beautiful forested hillsides hemmed in the valley. Perhaps our English traveler saw some of the old wooden Orthodox churches made noticeable by their lean spires and shingled roofs. Nagyilonda had undergone a bit of transformation since the first half of the 19th century. In the 1830’s Jews began to settle in the area. By 1900, they administered most of the trade in the Nagyilonda and nearby communities. Their presence would continue to grow until they were a quarter of the population before being largely wiped out by the Holocaust. All that was part of an unimaginable future of which our traveler would have been oblivious. The pastoral landscape and docile peasantry going about its business would not have given much hint of the underlying tensions slowly building in this land.

Pass Through Territory – A Land Harsh & Quaint
Either side of the journey’s halfway point was bookended by a couple of small villages, Hosszurev (Rastoci) and Letka (Letca). The inhabitants were mainly small-scale Romanian farmers, adherents to the Greek Orthodox faith who lived in wood houses with straw roofs. It was a humble existence in a beautiful land where faith, family, custom and tradition defined the way of life. What these farmers and their families must have thought when the railroad arrived is anyone’s guess. It brought foreign travelers such as our Englishman to look in on a world that must have appeared both harsh and quaint. The laborers, in sunlit fields, surrounded by golden stacks of hay looked like a purer form of enchantment when seen from behind a pane of glass in a comfortable railway carriage. Much less so for those struggling to earn their livelihood in a magnificent, but marginally productive land. The railway was little more than a transitory presence, at least for now. This was pass through territory, but the fact that it could now be accessed by an English traveler was nothing short of miraculous. As was everything else that was to come along this route.

* Klausenberg is now Cluj, Bistritz is Bistrita, Hermannstadt is Sibiu, Fogaras is Fagaras and Kronstadt is Brasov. In 1900 they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today they are in Romania.

Click here for: The Beginning & End Of Transylvania – Zsibo to Zilah By Rail: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Eight)

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.

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.