Jozsef Katona of Kecskemet – A Tragedy Followed By Triumph (For The Love of Hungary Part 46)

Visiting a new place in provincial Hungary always seems to bring me into contact with historical personages that I knew nothing about prior to my arrival. Names such as Erkel, Jokai, Kodaly, Balissi and Dobo have become familiar to me because I have visited a city or village where their exploits loom large. Many of these men have statues in Budapest and a prominent place in the national psyche, but their legacies are most alive at the places where they came of age. These are usually hometowns or places that played host to their greatest achievements. A provincial city needs it heroes much more than a nation’s capital. Local heroes offer hope, a sense of pride and a shared connection to the local citizenry. Smaller cities, towns and villages are always proud to extol the virtues of one of their own. Homegrown talent that made a name for themselves and at the same time brought a bit of fame to their hometown.

A Call For Justice - Jozsef Katona

A Call For Justice – Jozsef Katona (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

The Famously Anonymous – Provincial Hungarian Heroes
Anytime someone says I am an expert on Hungary a sense of irritation sweeps over me. Knowing the ins, outs and nuances of an entire country is an impossible learning curve. My attempts to master Hungary always falter when I visit a new city or town. That is when I am suddenly standing face to face with a famous historical personage who is anonymous to me. This happens to be someone famous who is immortalized in sculpture or statuary, whose name is etched on a plinth or plaque. These personages are almost always “local” men. I use “local” with quotation marks because many of those deified in provincial cities and towns happen to be national heroes. The proverbial local boy who was better than good, they were great. Those whose deeds far exceeded the modest cities and towns they sprang from. This was the case in Kecskemet, where I was confronted with the life, death and legacy of Jozsef Katona. Katona’s legacy makes an unforgettable appearance in the city center.

It was difficult not to notice the references in Kecskemet to Katona. A few hundred meters from the railway station was the Jozsef Katona Museum which stands in Jozsef Katona Park. The city’s lavishly ornate neo-Baroque theater is named after Katona. The ultimate and heartbreakingly tragic tribute to the man comes with a memorial stone located a stone’s throw from the Kecskemet City Hall. A flower bed located in front of the building holds a split block of stone. The monument’s sad poignancy is expressed in the fact that it records the exact spot where Katona succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 39. The stone is meant to symbolize Katona’s broken heart. During his lifetime, Katona was not given proper appreciation for Bank Ban. A play that still dominates Hungarian drama today.

Strokes of Genius - Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

Strokes of Genius – Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

For King Or Country – A Contentious Relationship
Jozsef Katona’s life did not make him an obvious candidate for great renown. He was born in 1791 in Kecskemet, the son of a weaver who lived modestly. During his youth, Katona was often ill, but was blessed with a brilliant intellect. He excelled in his studies at a local Roman Catholic school. At the age of eleven his parents took him to study in Pest. He lasted only a year before returning home mainly due to illness. Katona would regain his academic equilibrium during the ensuing years, eventually matriculating to school in Szeged before returning to Pest. He excelled in philosophy and judicial studies leading him towards a career as an attorney. This made him little different from other upwardly mobile Hungarian men who used their intelligence to advance their position in life. What made Katona different was his passion for drama. He had an artistic side that expressed itself with dramatic intent.

While studying and later practicing law, Katona became increasingly involved in Pest’s theatrical scene. He acted in many plays and during a five-year period wrote or reconfigured twenty-two different dramas. During this time Katona submitted his original work, Bank Ban, in a competition held by the Transylvanian Museum in Kolozsvar (present day Cluj, Romania) for a play to be performed at the opening of a National Theater in the city. The play was rooted in medieval Hungarian history. The central character, Bank, is acting on behalf of King Andrew II (1205-1235) while the king is away fighting in a foreign campaign. Unfortunately, Bank gets himself involved in a nefarious plot to murder the king’s German born wife, Queen Gertrude. He first tries to stop the rebellious plot, but then ends up killing the queen. Bank is forced to wrestle with the question of personal and professional loyalties. The moral quandary he finds himself in regarding his duties is fascinating.

The play touched on contemporary issues concerning the Hungarian’s contentious relationship with their foreign overlords, the Austrian Habsburgs. This would have made the play a lightning rod for controversy if it had been selected as one of the top entries. Instead the committee judging the play did not mention it at all. This may have been because it drew uneasy parallels between past and present attitudes to foreign rulers. Katona revised the play and published it four years later to no avail. It was only several years after his death that it finally received acclaim. Bank Ban soared in popularity to the point that on the first day of the Hungarian Revolution on March 15, 1848 the play was performed at the National Theater. It was later made into an opera by the composer Ferenc Erkel. That rendition of Bank Ban has proved wildly popular with Hungarians ever since. The play is a touchstone of Hungarian drama. As for Katona, he died in 1830 long before his play became famous.

Remember Me When I'm Gone - Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet

Remember Me When I’m Gone – Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet (Credit: Mister No)

A Dramatic Legacy – Speaking Across The Ages
The legacy of Jozsef Katona is paradoxical. He was a successful attorney whose talent as a dramatist was not discovered until many years after his death. While Katona toiled in theatrical obscurity, he was able to create one of the great Hungarian dramas of all time. Katona may never have achieved the fame and notoriety he deserved, but Bank Ban’s meaning and message has lasted well beyond his life. All any artist can ask for is that their work speaks across the ages to universal experiences that everyone has in common. Allowing each observer to see something of themselves in the work. They might then come to understand the world in which they live much better. Bank Ban has managed to do this for each new generation of Hungarians. It might be said that Jozsef Katona knew his people better than they knew themselves. It is also true that they hardly knew him at all.


Arrivals From The Future, Departures From The Past – Kecskemet’s Eclectic Architecture (For The Love of Hungary Part 45)

The landscape I had journeyed across to arrive in Kecskemet was so devoid of sensory experience that I found myself wondering if the city would be the same. Instead of mind-numbing monotony, I would soon discover that a magnetically eclectic city awaited me. There was enough culture, history and architecture in Kecskemet to keep a person occupied for several days. This was contrary to my inauspicious arrival in the city. I first set foot in Kecskemet at the lackluster looking train station, a structure that did not do the rest of the city justice. Sizing it up, I quickly decided that the station was not worth photographing. This was something of a shame since a different iteration of this very building had been where the great composer, folk song collector and musicologist, Zoltan Kodaly was born. Kodaly’s father worked for Hungarian Railways and lived with his family in the station. The man whose approach to music education, the Kodaly method, would change the teaching of music forever, learned his first notes as a child by the rail side in Kecskemet. Zoltan Kodaly would later compose sounds much different from the constant roars of locomotives arriving and departing.

Kecskemet's Confection - The Cifra Palace

Kecskemet’s Confection – The Cifra Palace (Credit: Mister No)

The Cifra Palace – Utterly Ridiculous & Outlandishly Charming
Departing from the station I began a short walk into the city center. My intended destination was the series of interconnected squares that are at the heart of Kecskemet’s downtown. This area is home to its famous Art Nouveau architecture. These buildings still stand as a reminder of the city’s turn of the 20th century aspirations to radically reinvent its urban landscape. The first of these structures soon came into view as I entered Szabadsag ter. The Cifra Palace (Cifra Palota) was unmistakable. The name literally means ornamentation palace and it certainly lives up to that standard. There was something both utterly ridiculous and outlandishly charming about the palace’s exterior ornamentation. Wall panels in the shape of hearts and other curved patterns were a cross between intricate sublimity and the bizarrely beautiful. Inside these panels were glazed majolica tiles covered with fantastical folk art patterns.

Other touches of secessionism (Hungarian Art Nouveau) included Zsolnay tiles around door frames and seven glazed chimneys embedded on the rooftop. My first reaction to the palace was befuddlement. I had no idea what to make of such stylistic eccentricity. There was an eastern inspired exoticism to the façade that did not seem European in any sense of the word. This wildly eclectic design was the product of a fantastical pathos. While the interior of Cifra Palace is now home to the Kecskemet Art Gallery, nothing can surpass the palace’s exterior ornamentation when it comes to profligate creativity. If Art Nouveau architecture was meant as a break from the past, the Cifra Palace was more like an explosion that left the traditional in ruins.

Dawning of a New Age - The Synagogue & Cifra Palace in the early 20th century

Dawning of a New Age – The Synagogue & Cifra Palace in the early 20th century (Credit: Beroesz)

Missing Humanity – A Tragic Artifact
The last, immaculate exterior expression of another tradition that was brought to ruin in Kecskemet was just across the street from the Cifra Palace. The tradition was Judaism and the expression may have been crisp, clean and blindingly bright, but the city’s well-preserved Moorish style synagogue could only provoke a feeling of tragic loss. While the synagogue’s exterior still looked to be in fine form, the city’s Jewish community had long since vanished into the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz in the diabolical summer of 1944. As splendid as this once vaunted house of worship still appeared, I could not help but feel that it was a tragic artifact missing its most vital component, humanity.

At the time I visited, the synagogue was home to a Museum of Science and Technology. This slight was conceived and carried out in 1966 under the communist regime. After the Iron Curtain fell, many places of worship in formerly communist countries that had been forcibly converted into museums or storehouses were reconverted to sacred spaces. That was not case with the synagogue in Kecskemet. There were hardly any Jews left in the city by then. It would have been an honest representation of history if the synagogue had become a museum about Jewish life in Kecskemet. It has not happened and likely never will. The Holocaust is a shame that most Hungarians are not ready to face.

The First Among Many - Kecskemet City Hall

The First Among Many – Kecskemet City Hall (Credit: Mister No)

Incomparable Attractions –  Objects of Fascination
On a much more positive note, I made my way only a couple of hundred meters over to look at the New School (Uj Kollegium), a Calvinist Law School inhabiting an Art Nouveau creation. Could there be two more seemingly incompatible ideas than Calvinism and Art Nouveau? Conservative, taciturn and fundamental religiosity versus creativity in its most revolutionary form. Somehow these two ideas were brought together in the construction of this school which soars above the street below. The main inspiration was Transylvania folk architecture, infused with a healthy dose of secessionist style. This fusion created a building of such striking singularity that it would be the outstanding Art Nouveau work in most cityscapes. That this is not true in Kecskemet owes much to the creative genius of Hungarian Art Nouveau’s godfather, Odon Lechner. His creative genius – in partnership with Gyula Partos – brought about the design and construction of the Kecskemet City Hall, an incomparable work of Art Nouveau architecture that dominates Kossuth ter. This was surely the effect Lechner had in mind when the building was being constructed from 1893-96.

The City Hall was completed just in time for the celebrations of the Hungarian Millennium. The Kecskemet City Hall was Lechner’s first attempt at creating a Hungarian National Style. It would prove to be so successful that the building would influence Hungarian architecture for an entire generation. The City Hall incorporates aspects of early French Renaissance style, English rural architecture and Baroque elements. Lechner and Partos brought the Hungarian influence to bear upon the design with his use of ceramic ornamentation to showcase folk art. His ability to assimilate a medley of stylistic influences into a coherent whole resulted in his first great work of Art Nouveau. I found certain details on the facade to be objects of fascination such as floral motifs on Zsolnay majolica tile and the use of pyrogranite on parts of the building.

I longed to go inside and see some of the ornamented decoration my guidebook so gloriously expounded upon. These included a wood paneled council room covered in frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows. Sadly, I had come at the wrong time to get the standard tour, but I did get enough of a glimpse to whet my appetite for a follow up visit. For me this was the essence of Kecskemet’s architecture, a path breaking attractiveness that left me wanting more. I had never seen anything quite like the fantastic trio of Art Nouveau buildings in downtown Kecskemet, but I had a feeling that one day I would be back.


A Land That Lives By Its Own Rules – Kecskemet (For The Love of Hungary Part 44)

Of the nine cities in Hungary with a population of one hundred thousand or more, Kecskemet can lay claim to the most sublimely remote location. The city is located out on the southern Great Plain amid a netherworld of ever-expanding agricultural fields, pancake flat steppe land and horizons that provoke thoughts of forever. Sand and soil were the defining traits of this region for generations. Modern agricultural techniques were the only thing that saved the area from becoming a Hungarian Sahara. The rather recent, at least in historical terms, agricultural cultivation of this land did little to ameliorate the effect of a rail ride into a county (Bacs-Kiskun) that has less than a hundred meters of elevation change throughout the area in which Kecskemet is located. The city itself comes on like a mirage, materializing an hour and 22 minutes by train outside of Budapest. The length of travel time is deceptive. Budapest seems like it could not possibly be that close or for that matter exist at all. Such was the landscape’s effect upon my perception of time and distance that I felt as though I had entered a land that lived by its own rules.

The Midpoint of Nowhere - Landscape around Kecskemet

The Midpoint of Nowhere – Landscape around Kecskemet (Credit: Csepege)

The Mid-Point Of Nowhere – Pass Through Country
Location meant everything to the historical development of Kecskemet. The city stands at the exact mid-point between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, halfway between Szeged and Budapest. Hungary is much too small to have fly over country like the Great Plains of the United States. Nonetheless, it has plenty of pass through country in its eastern portions. Kecskemet could be called the capital of pass through country. On my journey, I got the feeling that Kecskemet was a thousand miles from anywhere. One hundred kilometers on the Great Plain, was equivalent to ten in northern or western Hungary. Sky, grass, turned up earth and belts of trees were the only things marking what must have been a limitless horizon in prior centuries. The cultivation of trees till could not hide the growth of sky which was by far the most dramatic feature of the landscape. Time was measured in hours rather than minutes in this land.

It was with a fair amount of relief that I arrived in Kecskemet. The journey seemed to take much longer than I imagined. Upon my arrival, I had the disconcerting feeling that this was the kind of place I was never meant to visit. It was Hungarian through and through. Gone was the cosmopolitan air of Budapest, a provincial spirit pervaded Kecskemet. The Magyar tongue was the only language I heard spoken on the streets. There was an insular quality to this city, made more so by its seeming isolation. I hoped that whatever attractions the city might hold would be of greater interest than its immediate surroundings. I suspected that Kecskemet’s size and importance were due to its role as a large center of trade and commerce somewhere in this outer Hungarian space. Population, agriculture, pastoralism and the conduct of human affairs demanded as much. In that sense, Kecskemet was much like another metropolis of the Great Hungarian Plain, Debrecen. Both were surrounded by spaces that demanded a center. Kecskemet would turn out to have an astonishingly vibrant one.

Coming Into Its Own - Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century

Coming Into Its Own – Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century (Credit: Ferenc Somorjai)

Shifting Wasteland – From Existential To Environmental Crisis
I assumed that Kecskemet’s history was pockmarked with the excesses of Ottoman Turkish occupation. This was true to a lesser extent when compared to most other places on the Great Hungarian Plain. As the Ottoman war machine surged northward it laid waste to outlying settlements. Refugees fled to Kecskemet. Its population was swelled further when it gained protected status. Because of its role as a market town and trade center, Kecskemet came under the Sultan’s direct control. Any taxes paid went to the pasha of Buda and Ottoman treasury. Other areas on the southern Great Plain were not so lucky. Corrupt military commanders ruled in what was known as the Spahi system, where their income was derived directly from squeezing the land and business owners in the areas under their rule. Conversely, the Sultan and his administrators held a vested interest in Kecskemet which kept the town under the rule of law and relatively prosperous. This meant the town continued to undergo development rather than destruction during a century and a half of Ottoman rule.

An environmental rather than an existential crisis buffeted the city during the 18th century threatening its commercial livelihood. Tens of thousands of cattle grazed the surrounding steppe land until its already sandy soils were reduced to shifting wastelands. The pastoral economy completely collapsed. It took almost a century for the region’s economy to recover. A vigorous campaign to re-vegetate the Great Plain surrounding Kecskemet was encouraged by a massive tree and vine planting program. This led to the development of fruit orchards and vineyards. The cultivation of apricots was perhaps the most notable offshoot of this economic reorientation. Kecskemet soon became the center of production for Hungary’s delicious apricot brandy. In addition, the sandy soils proved to be the best defense against phylloxera, a nasty insect which caused vine rot across Hungary. Phylloxera devastated the country’s wine growing regions during the late 19th century. Vines entrenched in the sand in the area around Kecskemet proved immune. Production soared to meet demand. The led the city’s economy to a commensurate expansion.

Stopping Point - Kecskemet Railway Station

Stopping Point – Kecskemet Railway Station (Credit: B.Zsolt)

Architectural Inspiration – An Exotic Jewel Box
The redevelopment of the surrounding landscape from pastoralism to viticulture, orchards and cropland brought prosperity to thrifty landowners. This newly acquired wealth led to the construction of public and private buildings in the city center during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of Hungary’s most magnificent examples of Art Nouveau architecture were constructed during this time. These buildings have become Kecskemet’s calling card for visitors. As I was about discover, the city’s downtown was marked by a spaciousness clustered around four interconnected squares showcasing Art Nouveau inspired wonders. The astonishingly exotic buildings could not fail to impress precisely because they were beyond the modest expectations anyone might conjure up for the city. Kecskemet was more than a large city in the middle of nowhere, it was a self-contained jewel box filled with treasures from a time when architecture was informed by the most spectacular manifestations of creativity. Those manifestations would be the highlight of my visit to the city.