Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)

In They Were Counted, the first book in Miklos Banffy’s masterful The Writing On The Wall trilogy, the main character Balint Abady is riding an overnight train from Budapest to Kolozsvar (Cluj). Just after dawn he wakes up as the train is passing through Banffyhunyad (Huedin) close to where he observes a fantastical, snow covered landscape, glowing radiantly in the bright morning sunlight. Somewhere between Banffyhunyad and the Sztana Tunnel, Abady spies the ruins of an old castle. Nearby he catches sight of the towers of a manor house, where his cherished, captive love Adrienne resides. It is a fleeting yet memorable glimpse, as though he were experiencing a dream rather than a reality. The landscape of Transylvania observed from a train has that kind of quality. I did not see any old castles or manor houses inhabited by beautiful aristocratic women on this stretch of the railway, but what I did see was a natural beauty just as romantic and dreamy. Here was a place that could possess the soul. I could have stayed on that train forever, only waking from this dream as the train came upon the outskirts of Cluj. The moment of arrival was jarring. Time suddenly had meaning again. One journey was over, another was just beginning.

St. Michael's Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

St. Michael’s Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

A Reminder Of Mortality –  St. Michael’s Intimidation
Cluj is a city of ghosts, but to see these ghosts you have to look past all the urban distractions to find the leftovers of empires and peoples past. The train station itself is ghostly. A strange thing to say since the station is bustling with travelers, police officers and an assortment of hangers-on. The station is an Austro-Hungarian confection dreamed up by Ferenc Pfaff at the beginning of the 20th century. The interaction of its architecture with crowds of people lends itself to an air of festive seediness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in front of the station, where taxi drivers noisily converse while awaiting potential passengers to swindle. Behind them stands the station, colorful, chaotic and grand. I picked my way through the clamor, ignoring the calls of “tak-si, tak-si, tak-si” directed at me. Weaving through the foot traffic of a much too busy sidewalk I made my way along Strada Horea (Horea Street). At a bridge crossing the somnolent Somesul Mic (Little Somes) River, the street suddenly became Strada Regelle Ferdinand (King Ferdinand Street). Many great cities are bisected by a river, but the tepid Somesul Mic looked like it had been tamed one too many times over the centuries.

Ten minutes after crossing the river I was brought to a halt at the city’s epicenter, Piata Unirii by the glorious Gothic ghost of Cluj’s Saxon past, St. Michael’s Church. All the distractions of commercialism and capitalism that had confronted me in my walk up to that point were obliterated by this classic example of a central European hall church. This was more than just a church. It was also a pivot point around which the city had developed. It took almost a century and a half to construct. Since its completion in 1487 (five years before Columbus arrived on the shores of America), St. Michael’s had haunted this square, towering over everything that had come and gone since then. The city was no longer Klausenberg (as the Saxons called it) or Kolozsvar (as Hungarians called it), the names and peoples associated with them had come and gone, but St. Michael’s stood, intimidating, austere and singular. It had outlasted conquering armies and ideologies, bombs from above and below, surely it would outlast everyone living in Cluj today and many more generations. St. Michael’s Church was a reminder of mortality. It would not last forever either, but it would last much longer than anything else in this city or at least it has so far.

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Ghosts Of Provocations Past- A King & Mad Mayor
After settling in at my accommodation I walked back to the square later that day. That was when I noticed the spectral presence of the Matthias Corvinus Monument just to the south of St. Michael’s Church. Corvinus, native son of Cluj, perhaps Hungary’s greatest king, is portrayed here atop a horse in a magnificently regal and royal pose. His birthplace is located not far off the square. The statue went up the same year as Pfaff’s train station. It was a time of nationalistic self-confidence for Imperial Hungary, when the Magyars imposed their architectural styles and historical perspectives on their beloved Kolozsvar (Cluj), de facto capital of Erdely (Transylvania). But this zealous nationalism was born less from self-confidence and more of a deeply rooted insecurity. The overbearing nature of Magyarization belied doubts about Hungarian permanence in a land where they were distinctly in the minority.  This worry had led to such feats of excessive Magyar chauvinism as the Corvinus Monument.

The Romanians would prove that they were no better, even when in the ascendant. After the fall of communism, Cluj elected the ultra-nationalist Gheorghe Funar as mayor. The bench I sat on that day – while pondering St. Michael’s Church and the Corvinus Statue – had not so long ago been slathered with paint in the Romanian national colors. Funar was known as the “mad mayor”, reveling in acts of pro-Romanian nationalism. This ghost of provocations past had since been painted over, but the wounds they had caused ran much deeper. For some Hungarians did not stop running until they were at the border of Hungary proper. I had come to Cluj in search of a vanished past, but at Piata Unrii the past had not vanished. What remained was not invisible nor in ruins, but had been polished, painted and reinterpreted.  The past here was not banished only burnished. Monuments to wrong memories were everywhere. The reactions and counter-reactions of the ruling ethnicities had been created by a nightmare of insecurities. This place was deeply haunted. Ghosts of Saxon burghers, Magyar magnates and Romanian revolutionaries still roamed this square and the surrounding streets of the Old Town.

Banffy Palace - historic postcard image

Banffy Palace – historic postcard image

The View From Above – Apparitions Of History
These apparitions from the history of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar, Cluj or whatever you wanted to call it were at odds with the youthful vibe of the modern city, full of thousands of happy, blissful university students. Their education was much different than mine. They saw what they wanted to see and I saw what I could hardly believe, the most frightening ghosts imaginable, ghosts that could be seen in the bright, broad daylight. Perhaps Miklos Banffy saw something similar when he looked down from the windows of the elegant Banffy Palace on the west side of the square. That masterpiece of Baroque elegance must have afforded him a magnificent view. He saw into this place and into these people. When I looked up at where he might have stood, all I saw was a ghost.

Coming soon: Tradition Never Goes Out Of Style – The Road Through Bontida (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Five)

Beyond All Recognition – Huedin Now & Banffyhunyad Then (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Three)

The train to Transylvania began to climb slowly out of the Crisana plains and makes its way along the northern edge of the Apuseni Mountains. With passport control done, I was now headed toward Cluj without anything else to detain me. The view from the train window was a mesmerizing distraction. The forest was an explosion of color, as fall foliage covered the hillsides. Dotting the landscape were pear shaped stacks of hay. From time to time the train would halt at a larger town where a few passengers would disembark. The landscape gripped me to such an extent that I began to imagine disembarking at one of these towns, disappearing into the woods forever and leaving the world behind. The serenity and peace I felt while looking at the scenery had a primeval allure, allowing me to entertain a dangerous idea that almost made sense.

Gypsy palace in Huedin

Gypsy palace in Huedin (Credit: Lutz Fischer-Lamprecht)

Banffyhunyad – A Vanishing Breed
At Huedin I saw the spires of unfinished Gypsy palaces glittering in the early afternoon sunlight. At times it felt like I was traveling through a world of fantasy and fiction. The fiction of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy felt close at hand. Most places looked as though nothing had changed since 1905, the year that the trilogy begins. This was deceptive, because Transylvania had changed irreparably since that time, especially for Hungarians. Take as an example Huedin, bigger than a village or town, but smaller than a city, with a population of 9,300. Up until the end of the First World War it was officially known as Banffyhunyad, signifying the fact that for five hundred years the Banffy family owned the entire town, as well as the surrounding area. Huedin may have once been part of such diverse polities as the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania, the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but for centuries the real power lay with the Banffy’s, who were the crème de la crème of the region’s aristocratic nobility.

The 20th century changed this situation radically. In 1920 Transylvania became part of Romania and has stayed that way ever since with the exception of a short interlude of Hungarian rule during World War II. The change in national borders led to a slow, but dramatic transformation in Huedin’s ethnic makeup. Demographic statistics bear this out. In 1910, during the waning days of Historic Hungary, over 90% of the town’s population was Hungarian speaking. By 1930 it was down to 70%. Then during World War II Huedin’s Hungarian Jewish population was wiped out by the Holocaust. The most precipitate decline took place in the half-century following the war, with the anti-Hungarian policies of the Ceaucescu regime and then the fall of Communism, thousands of Hungarians fled westward. According to the latest Romanian census taken in 2011, Hungarians makeup only 28% of Huedin’s populace.

Huedin is a reflection of what has happened to Hungarians all over Transylvania. To put the demographic figures in perspective, imagine walking down the street in Huedin a century ago. The only language you were likely to hear was Hungarian. Walk down the same street today and you would be lucky to find a Hungarian speaker. Most of the storefronts now have words written in Romanian rather than Hungarian. The name of the town and train station has changed. A whole way of life, administrative, economic and cultural has largely disappeared. To get an idea of just how unique this vanishing has been, try to imagine the Romanians who make up the overriding majority of Huedin’s inhabitants today disappearing in the 21st-century. It is an inconceivable thought. How could such a thing happen? There is no possibility, but the same thing would have been said at the beginning of the 20th century.

Heading toward an uncertain future -Hungarian women walking past the Huedin town hall in 1939

Heading toward an uncertain future -Hungarian women walking past the Huedin town hall in 1939 (Credit:

Agents Of Change – The War At Home
Despite the cries of Hungarian nationalists who say the land was stolen from them or Romanian nationalists who say the land was always theirs, the truth of the matter is that two World Wars and the radical ideologies of communism and fascism acted as the ultimate agents of change in Transylvania.  In turn these historical events and trends were to transform society and the idea of nation-states. Miklos Banffy lived through much of this turbulence. Like other Hungarian aristocrats in the region Banffy went from exalted status to anachronism during his lifetime. He was a deeply humanistic man who believed Hungarians and Romanians could live together, share power and create a more equal society that better represented the interests of all ethnic groups. In a sense Banffy’s dream came true when Romanian joined the European Union in 2009. This boosted minority rights. The Hungarians in Transylvania today have more rights than any minority has ever had in the region. The same goes for the Roma. The Romanians are firmly in control of the country, but xenophobic nationalism has been moderated by a modicum of prosperity and a fitful, flawed democracy.

Is there still discrimination? Of course, but the situation is much better today for all groups than it ever has been historically. A critique of this opinion would likely mention that the Hungarian aristocracy has vanished. How could it be better for Hungarians? Well the majority of Hungarians in Transylvania a century ago were not aristocrats. The lowliest Hungarian in Transylvania today has exponentially more economic and political opportunity than the same Hungarian would have had 150 years ago. That fact does little to heal the psychological wounds of Hungarians who still feel the loss of Transylvania. On the other hand, no matter what extremist political parties try to stir up or the media says about inter-ethnic relations, the citizens of Transylvania are not at war. From everything I would witness while visiting the region people are getting on with their lives. This region has had enough of war, for now.

Huedin & the landscape of Cluj County as seen through a train window

Huedin & the landscape of Cluj County as seen through a train window

Obscured By Beauty – A Truth About Transylvania
From the train window Huedin looked docile if not dramatic. Mountains in the distance formed a compelling backdrop to the sleepy settlement. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, it all depended upon your degree of knowledge and personal perspective. Transylvania was a timeless landscape inhabited by a diverse and dynamic society. The beauty and tranquility that I witnessed from the train window were enchanting, but it also obscured the massive upheaval that had transformed this region beyond all recognition.

Coming soon: Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)