The Rustbin of History – Where A Red Star Still Shines: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Two)

There was a feeling of unreality that came over me inside the ruined kingdom. One that I could scarcely have imagined even in my most fevered dreams. Being allowed into Istvantelek Train Yard was like leaving the world behind in search of the starkest reality. And then the strangest thing happened, for the next few minutes Attila and I discovered the train yard looked much like any other old industrial site. There were random buildings that looked ever so slightly occupied with a few cars scattered about the premises. These were the few signs of life in an otherwise lifeless landscape of muddy roads, overgrown weeds, bare trees and an alarming amount of rust growing on any substantial surface.

We did notice one area with a warehouse door closed and a large truck parked outside of it. Whatever kind of work was going on at Istvantelek these days was hidden from view. It was odd seeing scattered traces of human activity, but with no discernible signs of what might be taking place inside the many buildings. This was an area plagued by neglect. That aesthetic was most noticeable with the first major railroad relic that came into view. Sitting on a small segment of rusty rails was a gigantic locomotive with the ominously iconic Soviet red star painted upon the front of it. At this point, Attila decided to park the car so we could get a better look at several of the locomotives and carriages strewn about the site.

Built To Last - The MAV Class 424 Steam Locomotive

Built To Last – The MAV Class 424 Steam Locomotive

“Nurmi” – An Indestructible Workhorse
Sitting on a small section of track amid encroaching brush was a MAV Class 424 steam locomotive. The very definition of a hulking beast. Weighing in it at a colossal 137 tons, the behemoth stood silent and omnipotent, a singular, immaculately crafted set piece from the age when locomotives were shrinking time and distance. Forged with intensity and magnificent craftsmanship, the amount of work that went into creating this monster must have been incredible. A total of 514 MAV 424 locomotives were constructed between the mid-1920s and late 1950’s. It was nicknamed the “Nurmi”, after the famous Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, due to its speed and endurance.

The MAV 424 was used for both passenger and freight transport. It could pull up to 1,400 tons of freight at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour or up to 500 tons of passenger carriages at 90 kilometers per hour. This indestructible workhorse looked as formidable as any locomotive I have ever seen. Over 70% of the MAV 424’s were either sold or given to communist countries. 15 of them were sent to North Korea in the 1950’s. A few may still be in use by that hermit nation today. In Hungary, the last ones were resigned to museums, outdoor exhibits in provincial cities or in the case of the Istvantelek Train Yard. While the MAV 424 at Istvantelek was in nothing like prime shape, it was certainly built to last. The components looked as though they could survive a nuclear blast. I was quite surprised that the locomotive was in such good condition, especially considering that it had been exposed to the elements for many years.

MAV (Magyar Államvasutak) - Hungarian State Railways

MAV (Magyar Államvasutak) – Hungarian State Railways

A Fiery Magic – The Industrialized Sauna
We climbed inside the hulking brute and stood awestruck in the same space that engineers did for decades. Most of the knobs and dials were still in working condition. We got a feel for just how difficult it would have been to drive the locomotive. The coal furnace was within arm’s length of the driver’s space. The only windows were on the side. The smoke and heat must have been ferocious. All the romanticism of train travel suddenly melted away. Only a person within an iron constitution could have stood in this industrialized sauna for hours on end. We also saw where the coal shoveler would have worked their fiery magic within arm’s length of the engineer. The shrill noise, infernal heat and brutal physicality of such jobs must have taken a terrible toll. The MAV 424 may have been state of the art, but for those who worked on this locomotive, I imagined it had all the appeal of a blast furnace.

The iconic emblem painted on the MAV 424 locomotive resulted in the area being nicknamed the Red Star Train Yard. This is misleading and causes many train enthusiasts to think that Istvantelek is a communist era creation. In fact, the site has a long history that predates communism in Hungary. Officially, the train yard was known as the Istvantelek Main Workshop (Istvantelki Fomuhely). Its storied history goes all the way back to the turn of the 20th century when train travel was booming across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To deal with the many maintenance issues for its expanding fleet of locomotives, passenger and freight cars, Hungarians decided to construct a workshop in the northern part of Pest. Development of the site took place from 1901- 1905. Construction included the main workshop which was the largest building anywhere in Budapest at that time.

Vagabondage - An abandoned railroad car outside a ruined workshop at Istvantelek

Vagabondage – An abandoned railroad car outside a ruined workshop at Istvantelek

Going Nowhere – A Different Kind of Museum
The site continued to expand in the years after its opening, especially during World War I when two thousand workers were on-site servicing trains for the war effort. The Second World War was less kind to Istvantelek as it became a target of aerial bombing and sustained a great deal of damage. Nonetheless, it somewhat recovered after the war. What really sounded the death knell of Istvantelek was when the age of steam came to an end. By the mid-1980’s regular operations had ceased. The site’s future became the past, as it was tied to the Vasuttorteneti Park (Hungarian Railway Museum), adjacent to its grounds.

Many of the locomotives and carriages that were now resigned to the rustbin of Hungarian railroad history had been possible exhibit items for the museum. The problem was that the museum already had quite a collection, plus there was only so much money for restoration and room for storage. Thus, Istvantelek had become a different kind of museum. One where the locomotives and carriages were left to speak for themselves, austere reminders of a golden age that had turned to rust. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the main workshop which we would soon stumble upon.

Heading Nowhere Fast – Budapest’s Railway Ruin: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part One)

Befitting the major transit point for an entire nation, Budapest has three main train stations that take in most points of the compass. There is Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern station), whose frontal approach has just undergone a badly needed upgrade, Nyugati Palyudvar (Western station), a spectacular late 19th century Eiffel creation that has slowly succumbed to eloquent dilapidation and Deli Palyudvar (Southern station), a functionalist concrete concoction that was built to replace the original station which was shot to smithereens in the Battle of Budapest. Each of these stations counterintuitively services various points of the Hungarian compass. For hundreds of thousands each year, they are still the palaces of transport.

Trains originating from Nyugati Palyudvar often go east and those starting at Keleti Palyudvar head west. The most notable instance of this twisted logic occurs when trains head west to Vienna from Keleti. While such turns of the tracks have perplexed me on occasion, another question regarding the train stations of Budapest looms much larger in my mind. Specifically, why is there no northern station (Eszak Palyudvar) in the city? After all, if you have east, west and south stations then why not have a north one as well. I have heard various explanations, the most convincing of which is that all the other stations cover potential destinations. Also, the fact that the area north of Budapest is quite mountainous, with rugged terrain and comparatively few populated places would have made a railway station servicing it a needless waste of money.

Rustic Charm - Istvantelek Train Yard

Rustic Charm – Istvantelek Train Yard

The Last Joyride – A Train Trip Back In Time
The fact that there is no northern station in Budapest does not mean that railways have avoided this part of the city. On the contrary, many of the great treasures of Hungarian railway history can be found in the area at two places. The first one is Vasuttorteneti Park (Hungarian Railway Museum), which attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year. Visitors come to look at an amazing array of old locomotives and railway carriages that evoke the increasingly distant golden era of railway travel in Hungary. The other area filled with railway treasures bumps up against the Vasuttorteneti property, but hardly anyone is aware of it. This is the now defunct Istvantelek Train Yard, also known by its colloquial name as the Red Star Train Yard.

Istvantelek is off limits to tourists, but not to wily urban explorers who are willing to chance a visit. Many railway enthusiasts are aware of the rusting treasures to be found throughout the train yard. It has everything from hulking locomotives emblazoned with the communist red star to pre-World War I monsters that stand in silent, stolid testimony to the engineering achievements of a lost industrial age. A visit to Istvantelek is difficult, but not impossible. My Hungarian brother-in-law Attila, set out with me on a brisk winter’s day in January to see if we could get inside and take a look at some incredible railroad history.

A Living Museum - Istvantelek Train Yard

A Living Museum – Istvantelek Train Yard

Controlled Access – A Not So Grand Entrance
Access to the site was somewhat controlled, but Istvantelek was not heavily guarded. Research on the internet showed that the train yard could be accessed one of two ways. Either by sneaking into the train yard or asking for access from someone manning a lightly guarded main gate. The latter method seemed more promising if it was done on a Sunday. That’s because Istvantelek is still home to several small industrial concerns that have handfuls of staff working there on weekdays. On Saturdays and Sundays the site was said to be mostly abandoned, offering the most opportune time for a visit. The fewer people around, the better the odds of having a look. Attila was up for the adventure as well. He contacted a friend of his who had a bit of knowledge about the site. They planned to go with us, but other commitments forced them to back out at the last moment. From what we were able to learn, it was likely that we would have to find a hole in the fence or scale a wall in order to get inside. I did not enjoy the thought of climbing over a wall, especially when I first saw what would face us.

As we drove around the streets surrounding the train yard, I was unable to see much inside. That was because a cement wall, at least six feet high topped with three strands of rusty barbed wire, surrounded much of the perimeter. Thoughts of trying to straddle the wall while tangled up in barbed wire came to mind. We were a couple of guys in our late 40’s who were decently fit, but not exactly in prime shape. Climbing walls and suffering barbed wire wounds was not exactly an appealing idea. Fortunately, while driving around the perimeter we began to see some chain link fencing that looked more easily scalable, including one area with a gaping hole in it. The fence could be overcome, but perhaps there was a more promising option.

Lasting Presence - Abandoned Locomotive at Istvantelek Train Yard

Lasting Presence – Abandoned Locomotive at Istvantelek Train Yard

Twenty Nos & One Yes – A Ticket To Ride
We were finally able to find an entrance to the site with a guardhouse and gate. The gate was up, but the guardhouse was manned. We pulled up to the guardhouse where a man of medium height and build with graying hair and soft eyes greeted us. Attila decided to get out of the car and talk with him. I stayed in the vehicle, trying to look as disinterested as possible. The guard’s voice always maintained a level tone and there was very little discernible emotion on his face. He seemed to be relaxed. This was a good sign. It has been my experience in Eastern Europe that if you are to be told no, a negative answer is almost always immediately forthcoming. In this case, I was cautiously optimistic, but a bit unsure as their conversation lasted several minutes. When Attila returned to the car, he started the engine and said, “after about twenty nos I finally got a yes. The man said we could look around, but not to linger for too long.” I was elated. We were in.

Click here for: The Rustbin of History – Where A Red Star Still Shines: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Two)

 

It Will All End In Fears – From Szeged To Oblivion (For The Love of Hungary Part 38)

This was just the start of how I fear it will all end. I have no recollection of the return trip from Szeged back to Budapest. I do not remember the scenery, the ticket inspector, the stops or the starts, the woman who was with me that I would later marry, nor the departure or arrival. All those memories, if they ever existed have vanished. I do not have a single photo from either a camera or my memory to conjure up any images. I do not remember what time the train left or when it arrived. Either this means I am losing my memory or Hungary was becoming so familiar to me that habit had dulled my curiosity and eliminated my fascination.

Hungarian Dreams - My life gone by I miss it so

Hungarian Dreams – My life gone by I miss it so (Credit: fortepan.hu)

An Unanswerable Question – Straying Into Semi-Consciousness
Perhaps the problem was that nothing notable happened on the return trip. No one tried to accost me, there were no arguments between me and my significant other, there was no outstanding scenery, the train was on time and the tickets were in order. Difficulty did not exist. It must have been a rather pleasant journey. If it had not been this way, I would surely recall something or someone. Pleasantness and comfort are the mortal enemies of memory. Give me a comfortable seat, a silent carriage, unremarkable scenery and I return with nothing. In a sense, I went to oblivion on this journey, lost active engagement with my surroundings and strayed into semi-consciousness. This must be what death is like when a person is still alive.

None of this would be troubling except for the future that it represents, one day whether through memory loss or mortality everything I have seen and done in Hungary will be resigned to oblivion. That thought always brings me a self-defeating sadness. What was the point of it all? This kind of questioning is dangerous precisely because it is unanswerable. There was no explanation for my memory loss that afternoon. Usually while traveling in an unfamiliar part of Hungary, I am impressionable rather than impressionless. Maybe it was because Szeged had been so filled with outstanding attractions that I was on memory overload. My brain could not process all the little details or for that matter any details after the visit to Szeged. This bothered me because it portended the end of my personal history with Hungary.

Do You Remember The First Time - Budapest Taban District

Do You Remember The First Time – Budapest Taban District (Credit: fortepan.hu)

From Habit To Addiction – Making My Way Towards The Exit
The memory lapse on that return trip is a precursor to my inevitable future arrival at the end of my Hungarian journeys. It is the fear of never returning to Hungary that keeps me coming back again and again. Nevertheless, one day in the near or far off future I will have visited that lovely nation for the last time. The visit in which the Szeged trip occurred was just my third to the country. Not long thereafter, my trips to Hungary turned from a habit to an addiction. Presently I am up to fourteen trips. I cannot imagine fourteen more future trips any more than I could have imagined taking the first fourteen trips. As the trips increased, so did the blank spaces in my memory. I have had to rely on notes and photographs to regain the routings. My memory cannot retain much of what I have seen or done. I would love to have all those trips filled with fantastical moments back again. That is impossible, but research and writing has allowed me to capture some of those moments, if only for a few fleeting hours.

Ironically, somewhere along the way at a place and time that I cannot now recall, a cloud began to loom on my Hungarian horizons. A shadow slowly fell upon the map as I began to unconsciously make my way towards the exit. An all-consuming fear of being nearer the end than the beginning began to plague my thoughts. The idea that most likely my best trips were behind me. The frightening realization that there would never be another first time journey to Sopron or Szekesfehervar or Szombathely or Szeged. And if there was a second time in any of these cities, it would likely be the last. There was still Kaposvar, Kisvarda and Karcag but visiting them would mean there was even less places to visit than before. I had moved from second to third tier cities, eventually I would run out of room, both on the map and with my memory. Hungary was the size of Indiana not Canada, through my obsession I had tricked myself into believing it was so much more.

Somewhere along the way I became aware that not only was time running out on my Hungarian travels, but that it had been since I first slid across the southern border at Magyarboly. That bright and sunny March day eight years ago was still a vivid though increasingly distant memory. The border station festooned with all those Hungarian tricolors, the guards dressed in their officious best, everything proper and neatly kept, all these stylistic details had charmed me beyond belief. It was love at first sight, obsession after a couple of visits and finally the slowly creeping realization that it would all end in oblivion. Perhaps these were just normal stages of travel obsession. First comes love and fascination followed by a prolonged romance that manifests itself in an unquenchable obsession that eventually resigns itself to failure.

Dawn on the Danube - Budapest from Margret Bridge

Dawn on the Danube – Budapest from Margret Bridge

A Lapse In Memory – At The Point Of Death
Whether I chose to accept this fate or not hardly mattered. The memory lapse which began that day on the return trip from Szeged to Budapest occurred without my recognition of it until many years later. It may have been normal, but that did not make it any better. Whether it was due to fatigue, human frailty or lack of curiosity hardly matters, it was and still is something I will eventually be forced to accept. Everything I have learned about Hungary will eventually come to naught. Such is life, which inevitably proceeds towards lapses in memory and deletes them all when at the point of death. My only solution to this irreconcilable problem is one filled with irony and impossibility. I could always just choose to forget.

Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The last thing I did before leaving Koszeg was snap a photo of the train station, a two story building with a lime exterior and dirty red roof that was a cross between elegant and decrepit. The station looked like it was either one coat of paint away from renovation or one moment away from dilapidation. This made it especially photogenic. The picture was one that I came to treasure, as a throwback to a bygone era of travel that had somehow survived into the modern age. This was a photo that I enjoyed staring at, imagining that I was on one of the empty benches, backpack at my side, guidebook in hand, waiting for the next train to Szombathely. For me, this photo was essentially romantic, filled with the unspoken possibilities of travel, a journey beginning or ending in some far-off place. In sum, it stirred my imaginative longings for a place I longed to be. A life spent in perpetual motion, always in transit, a citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

Quite shockingly, my view of this photo was irreparably altered months later while reading Paul Lendvai’s remarkable work of history, The Hungarians: Victory In Defeat. In the middle of the book were the usual assortment of glossy historical photos of personages or events that were important to Hungarian history. One of these caught my attention. It showed a large group of people crowded together holding some of their belongings. They were huddled together, most of them with their backs to the camera waiting on some form of transport. The caption stated: “Jewish deportees from the Western Hungarian township Koszeg, summer 1944. Between 15 May and 7 July 402 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom only a minority survived.” I immediately made a connection. The Jews in this photo were likely standing at Koszeg’s train station. Sure enough, when I started searching on the internet I discovered that the photo was snapped at the station. This raised questions, was the photo taken surreptitiously or purposely? Likely the latter. Perhaps for official purposes, as proof that deportation was taking place.

Dreams & Nightmares - Koszeg Railway Station

Dreams & Nightmares – Koszeg Railway Station

Sinister Stirrings – Taking It Personally
I later discovered a larger sized version of the same photo that personalized the horror. Studying it, I was able to discern multiple details. There was a woman in white headscarf in the front left of the group. In her arms she held a large, thick black coat. Judging by her looks, she was older than average and thus would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz. All the adults standing in the group are wearing coats. Some are better dressed than others, such as the man in the far left of the image who looks to be wearing a rather nice suit. Quite a contrast from a man in the front right of the photo, who is only seen from a side angle. His slump shouldered posture expressive of defeat. He props himself up with a cane, while a hat and coat cover his beaten figure. In the background stands a vehicle piled high with suitcases and trunks filled with personal belongings. These possessions were destined to be taken from their owners in the coming days. The same could be said for so many of their lives.

The most disturbing part of the image for me was to be found in the lower right corner. Here a woman can be seen dressed in a very nice outfit, perhaps an employee of the state railways. She is talking with another person who cannot be seen. The woman looks stylish and quite casual. There is no hint on her face that anything sinister is taking place. It is just another day at work for her or at least that is what the image portrays. There could be no greater contrast than that of this woman protected by her status and ethnicity, standing within a stone’s throw of those Jews on the verge of being transported to a death camp. This all happened close to where I took my picture. There was no plaque at the station commemorating this tragedy. It was lacking out of shame or ignorance, neglect or indifference.

Traces of evil - Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Traces of evil – Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Abandoned Dreams – A Nightmare Scenario
It has since dawned on me that the most consistent physical reminder left of the Holocaust in Hungary are its railway stations. These portals of public transport were supposed to be harbingers of technological progress. They were built to facilitate commerce and the movement of people. The stations and trains certainly did that, but also ended up being used for genocidal purposes in 1944. Koszeg’s train station is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the deportation of the Jews. The same thing happened at innumerable railway stations and sidings across Hungary. Without the extensive railway system in Hungary it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to administer the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Never in the history of Europe had such a normal aspect of everyday life, whether for work or pleasure, been put to such horrific use.

The fact that Koszeg’s little railway station was the place where more than 400 Jews were shuttled off to one of the most infamous death camps in history is almost as difficult to fathom as the Holocaust itself. A place that I saw as a starting point for dreams of wider travel excursions had been the beginning of someone else’s nightmare. This ambiguity can be found in many such places where a conflicted history meets a present reality in Hungary. On the day I arrived and departed from the station it was almost vacant. There were few passengers on the platform. What I could not see, understand or comprehend were the ghosts of all those Jews who had been deported not so long ago. They were somewhere out there in the past, waiting on a train that they hoped would not arrive and wondering if it did, what that meant for their future. Whatever dreams of life in Koszeg they still had were left abandoned at the siding. Whatever illusions I had about travel from the Koszeg railway station were also abandoned. Left behind at the very moment I saw that photo in Lendvai’s book.

Click here for: Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits