Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

War changes everything or so it has been said countless times. Reading Baedeker’s 1900 description of Klausenberg (present day Cluj, Romania) I could not help but be struck by how much had changed in the city since the guide was written. These changes were the products of many historical forces, most prominent among them war and revolution. They transformed many aspects of the city beyond all recognition, while others such as the historic architecture survived the tests of terror and remained largely intact despite intermittent periods of turmoil. Though most of the buildings still stand – as either originals or reconstructions), the way many of them are viewed and interpreted has also changed. One of the best ways to understand these changes is by updating Baedeker’s description of Klausenberg and its sites.

Darkness on the edge of Cluj - Hungarian postcard of Kolozsvar in 1940

Darkness on the edge of Cluj – Hungarian postcard of Kolozsvar in 1940

The Place Stays The Same – The City Constantly Changes
The first sentence of the description states that: “Klausenberg, a town with 34,500 inhabitants, on the Little Szamos, founded by the Saxons in 1272, is the seat of the county of Kolozs, of a Reformed and a Unitarian superintendent and of a Magyar university (since 1872).” Among the revisions now needed for this sentence include the city name, which is now officially known by its Romanian name of Cluj-Napoca, though most residents just call it Cluj. The latter half of the name was added in 1974 when Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu decreed that Napoca be added to Cluj’s name. This add-on was a reference to a pre-Roman settlement in the same area as the city. Ceaucescu wanted to stoke nationalistic sentiments to distract from his utterly corrupt, venal regime. Klausenberg, the city’s German name has become a distant memory, as are the Saxons who founded or re-founded (depending upon your historical perspective) the town. According to the 2011 Romanian census there were only 544 residents of German ethnicity left in Kolozsvar.

Just as Kolozsvar officially became Cluj, so too did the county name change. Kolozs County, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary vanished after World War I.  The city then became part of Cluj County in Romania. Such name and administrative changes may seem superficial, but they are expressive of the extent to which Cluj has been transformed from a majority Hungarian to a majority Romanian city in the space of five generations. The Magyar University to which Baedeker refers was then the Hungarian Royal University and has now morphed into the Babes-Bolyai University, which provides tertiary instruction in the Romanian, Hungarian and German languages. It is today considered to be one of the top 700 universities in the world and has been an incubator for talented young professionals who have helped Cluj become one of the wealthiest cities in Romania. A welcome change from decades of internecine academic and administrative warfare to make the university’s education program exclusively taught in either the Romanian or Hungarian languages.

Changing Spaces - Courtyard of the Banffy Palace Art Museum of Cluj

Changing Spaces – Courtyard of the Banffy Palace Art Museum of Cluj

Becoming History – Grand Balls, Lavish Lifestyles & Illicit Romances
Further into the text, Baedeker adds a bit of local color when it states that, “Being the headquarters of the numerous noblesse of Transylvania, the town is very animated in winter.” The aristocrats have now all disappeared from Cluj. The memories of their grand balls, illicit romances and lavish lifestyles of haute couture that came shimmering to life on snowy Transylvanian evenings have faded from living memory. Those who were not wiped out by land reform in the 1920’s ended up suffering an even worse fate when the communists took over in the late 1940’s. They suffered wholesale looting of their estates, exile, sentences in prison camps or even death. There are still traces in Cluj from the waning days of the aristocratic belle epoque, most prominently on the west side of Piata Unirii where the Baroque styled Banffy Palace still stands today.

Baedeker does not mention the Banffy Palace and why would they? It was still a residence for one of the most powerful families in Transylvania when the guidebook was written. Today it is a tourist attraction that houses an exquisite gallery of art, consistently rated as the best on display in Romania outside of Bucharest. The palace’s transformation only took place because the aristocracy is now history in Transylvania. Becoming part of history sounds like a fascinating exercise in pseudo-immortality, but in truth it often involves catastrophic upheaval. It took a great deal of tumult in the first half of the 20th century for the Banffy Palace to no longer play host to winter balls. Now it is full of tourists brought there by guidebooks of which Baedeker was a forerunner.

Soaring Towards Another Century - St. Michael's Church in Kolozsvar in 1898

Soaring Towards Another Century – St. Michael’s Church in Kolozsvar in 1898

The Matter of Facts – Discrepancies, Documentation & Details
One thing that has certainly not changed in Cluj since 1900 is “the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael” which is the centerpiece of what is known today as Piata Unirii. It is the propulsive heart of modern Cluj just as it was for pre-World War I Kolozsvar. In the early 1990’s this same area was known as Piata Libertaii, in 1900 its official name was Matyas Kiraly ter (Matthias Corvinus Square). Baedeker referred to it as “the market-place”. Despite the constant name changes, the church at its center has remained throughout the city’s history as an excellent example of Gothic architecture, a Saxon hall church extraordinaire. Baedeker gave the dates of its construction as 1396 to 1432. For a guidebook that prided itself on getting every detail correct, the Baedeker text on Klausenberg has several errors. The cathedral’s construction took place from 1347 to 1487.

Baedeker also incorrectly lists the date of Klausenberg’s founding by the Saxons as 1272. The best documentation found to date lists the date as 1275. It is easy to point out the errors in Baedeker, but such discrepancies are understandable. It is likely that the authors were going by the best information available to them. The research for the guidebook was done mostly on the ground or at large libraries with the best resources available at the time. Experts were enlisted to help with each section. No matter how much expertise and scrutiny were given to the text, such information as historical facts and dates can be just as riven by change as the city was during the 20th century. New information and sources have come to light that change the facts upon which Cluj’s history is based. A guidebook like Baedeker that was the single best guidebook of its day is now an artifact. It too has become part of history.

Click here for: Apahid, Aristocrats & Armenians -Klausenberg To Szamosujvar The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Five)

Klausenberg To Kolozsvar To Cluj – A Transylvanian Transition: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Three)

Baedeker was nothing if not thorough. Their Handbooks for Travellers contained thousands of details molded into itineraries such as the one that would carry me both backward and forward in time from Klausenberg to Bistritz. The seemingly infinite number of details culminating in a travel itinerary between two of Transylvania’s most important cities. To compare the information from 1900 with everything that had happened to the towns and villages along the route since that time makes for a fascinating journey. One that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a world that has been by turns lost or transformed and in some places, surprisingly unchanged. I began to read, reread and then study in intimate detail the Transylvania section of the Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia Handbook For Travellers. The world of yesterday and today began to collide, creating something altogether new. Forming by way of comparison, contrast and contradiction. This development melded past with present, allowing me to see how much had changed and discover just how much had not.

Eclecticism & Electricity – New York In Transylvania
Before a turn of the 20th century traveler departed Klausenberg they would have taken some time to tour the city. Following the advice of Baedeker, they could book a room at the elegant New York Hotel, which happened to be the guide’s first recommendation. The New York was a striking four story edifice built in the eclectic style, reflecting that growing architectural trend. Among its most striking features was a turret that topped the apex where both sides of the hotel intersected. The interior offered a new class of comfort. There were 65 rooms, kitted out with plush furnishings. In addition, the hotel had its own generator allowing guests to enjoy electric light, a first anywhere in the city.

The New York also housed a coffee house which was the favorite haunt of numerous authors both those who lived in and visited the city. Among the clientele was Hungary’s most famous writer of that time, Mor Jokai. One of the present-day streets fronted by the edifice is named for Jokai. The hotel was the crown jewel for accommodation in the city. A place where travelers could rest and relax in refined luxury. The New York, like Kolozsvar had an ill-starred future ahead of it. It was later renamed the Continental Hotel.  When the German Army occupied Kolozsvar during the spring of 1944 it acted as the Gestapo’s first headquarters. After World War II it was turned into a youth hostel for students. In the 1960s it was renamed the Continental Hotel until it was sold in the early 21st century and shuttered for a planned conversion into a shopping mall.

Glitter & Rust - The former New York Hotel in Cluj

Glitter & Rust – The former New York Hotel in Cluj (Credit: Acquario 51)

Changing Faces  – Playing The Percentages
The New York Hotel was just beginning to realize its sparkling promise as the new century opened. At that time Baedeker reported Klausenberg’s population as 34,500. Figures given by Romanian sources today show the population at 50,000 (Hungarian sources provide a similar number). The total number is not as important as the percentage of each ethnic group in the city. Klausenberg/Kolozsvar/Cluj* was multi-cultural before multiculturalism happened to be a fashionable idea. In 1900 the city was overwhelmingly Hungarian. Magyars made up 82% of the population. Romanians were the second largest group with 14% and Saxons third at 3.5%. These figures are both enlightening and deceiving. In northern Transylvania, Hungarians were overwhelmingly urban dwellers while Romanians dominated the countryside.

The Hungarian figure was also boosted by 6,000 Jews, because they spoke Magyar as their mother tongue they were counted as such. As an individual class Jews were almost as numerous as Romanians in Kolozsvar and much more powerful due to their varied commercial interests and high rate of employment in the professional classes. Being a German publishing firm, Baedeker refers to the city by its German name, even though Saxons were a minute proportion of the population. Saxons had also been mentioned earlier in the Transylvania section. The introduction included information on each of the region’s five main ethnic groups – Hungarians, Romanians, Saxons, Szekeler and Roma. Hungarians would continue as the city’s majority ethnic group until the 1960’s.

The Romanian communist government’s policy of rapid industrialization went hand in hand with diluting the Hungarian share of the populace. After the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu at the end of 1989 the borders of Romania opened up to the west. Many of Cluj’s Hungarian residents fled to Hungary in search of greater economic opportunities. The upshot was that by 2011, the Romanian share of Cluj’s population was 81.5% almost the same as the Hungarian majority’s share in 1900. There was one major difference though, the population of Cluj was now 324,000, 16.5% of which was Hungarian. Cluj had become a Romanian city in a matter of a few generations.

A Fleeting Image - Old Kolozsvar

A Fleeting Image – Old Kolozsvar (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Strolling Down The Strada – From Aristocrats To Peasants To The Present
A visitor clutching their Baedeker had two choices when they arrived at Klausenberg’s main train station. They could either choose to head by rail for points further east or take a self-guided tour around the city using the Handbook for Travellers. Baedeker’s chosen route through Klausenberg started at the station then slowly headed westward towards the Belvaros (Inner city), an area stuffed with scintillating architecture. Buildings in the Belvaros showcased a much deeper past than the relatively new train station could offer. Getting to the heart of the city meant a rather long walk down Franz Josef utca. That same street still exists, but the name has long since been changed.

Instead of an Emperor, the street is now named after a peasant. Strada Horea commemorates one of the Romanian leaders of the Transylvania Peasant Uprising in 1784. The name may have changed, but the strada sill acts as one of the city’s main transport arteries. Travelers of the past and present followed the same paths. Now shops, restaurants and grocery stores line the route. A sure sign that capitalism in all its varied forms has conquered Romania in a little over twenty-five years. The transition from communism to a free market economy has been so rapid that the visitor is unlikely to even take notice. Only after crossing a bridge over the Somesul Mic River (Little Szamos) and entering the Belvaros does the true splendor of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar and Cluj begin to shine through.

*Note: Klausenberg (German), Kolozsvar (Hungarian) and Cluj (Romania) are used interchangeably throughout this post. In general a specific derivation of the name is used depending on what group administered the city, except in the case of Klausenberg which is used when referring to Baedeker’s text on the city.

Click here for: Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

A Turn Of The 20th Century Train Ride To Transylvania – Budapest to Klausenberg: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Two)

In 1900, English and German travelers going on a journey to Transylvania would almost certainly have gone through Budapest. The Hungarian capital was the most prominent jumping off point for heading into one of the most diverse natural and cultural landscape in Eastern Europe. Going eastward out of Budapest meant starting in a counter intuitive turnabout of geographical logic. The city’s western railway terminal (Nyugati Palyudvar) was the jumping off point for Transylvania. This magnificent hall of transport had been constructed by the famous Eiffel firm of France a quarter century before. A turn of the century traveler would have entered the station in search of the cavernous ticket hall, which still manages to serve the same function today.

There they would have been able to purchase a ticket for the journey to the largest city in Transylvania, Klausenberg.* This was the route recommended by the 1900 edition of Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia – Handbook for Travellers by Baedeker. Listed as Itinerary #69 – From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein – this rail trip is still offered today for the nostalgically inclined. It departs multiple times each day beginning at the same exact station as it did over a century ago. It is comforting to discover that despite all the geopolitical changes that rocked the region during the 20th century, Baedeker’s itinerary between the two cities is largely unchanged, at least on paper.

Itinerary 69 - From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein

Itinerary 69 – From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein

Delighting In The Details – First Class All The Way
Baedeker was the gold standard of travel guides in the late 19th and early 20th century. The breadth of coverage and detailed information they provided was unprecedented. The guidebooks eschewed opinionated commentary for a “just the facts” writing style. Baedeker’s itineraries are chock full of details that the latter-day reader will find of especial interest if they want to compare the same journey from past to present. For instance, the railway journey from Budapest to Klausenberg is listed as taking anywhere between 8 ½ to 13 hours. The trip today, which now includes a border crossing, can be done in about 8 hours. Thus, the speed of travel has increased, but not as dramatically as one might imagine. This is most likely due to the mountainous topography that trains must scale as they climb the Transylvanian portion of the route.

The comfort and ease for those who could afford to travel this route by train in 1900 would have been much greater, especially regarding food, than modern travelers have come to expect. A dining car was an integral part of the train. Such services are noticeably lacking today on all but night trains. And those that travel through the night offer a heightened version of the TV dinner as opposed to the elegant dining options offered on turn of the 20th century Hungarian trains. A traveler paid for this elegance. Baedekers lists a first-class ticket on this route as costing 9 florins. Calculated for inflation this would be the equivalent of 47 euros/55 dollars in today’s terms. A second-class ticket cost 6 florins or the equivalent of 33 euros/38 dollars. Today, the cost of a first-class ticket on the route is 51.50 euros/60 dollars, while a second-class ticket now goes for 34.50 euros/40 dollars. Prices have not changed and neither has much of the route.

Starting point - Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Station) in 1900

Starting point – Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Station) in 1900 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Facts Versus Opinions – Taking The High (Rail)Road
Baedeker starts the itinerary by providing a thorough point by point description of the rail route between Budapest and Nagyvarad which crossed the Great Hungarian Plain. The guidebook’s author is mostly sparing with anything other than the details. Amid the facts are tidbits that might raise an eyebrow. The landscape is referred to as “a monotonous plain”. For anyone who has ever traveled this route that description rings true. Though the amount of historical and architectural information is much less than a modern reader might prefer, Baedeker aims to provide a step by step account of the stations and villages that the railway passes through. A fine example of this style can be found in the description starting with the train crossing the Theiss (Tisza River):

69 ½ M. Szajol (where the Arad line diverges, see p. 374). 75 M. Torok Szent Miklos; 81 M. Fegy-vernek. From (92 M.) Kis-Ujszallas lines run to the N. to Kaal-Kapolna (p. 347), to the S. to (18 M.) Devavanya and thence to (29 1/2 M.) Gyoma (p. 374), and to the E. to (58 M.) Grosswardein. — 102 M. Karczag (branch-line to Tisza-Fured, 28 M., see p. 369). 111 M. Puspok-Ladany (Rail. Restaurant)

Such information might be construed as gobbledygook. Then again, it was certainly preferable to staring out the window at a mind numbing landscape. Current guidebooks are quite the opposite. They skip the in between parts to expound on the larger towns and better known attractions. Baedeker did a bit of this, but their guidebook was more information than interpretation. From time to time, the authorial opinion of Baedeker managed to creep through. For instance, the traveler learns that Grosswardein is “a pleasant town”. Among its architectural attractions “is the tasteless Roman Catholic Cathedral” which stands close to the “handsome” bishop’s residence. The hills outside the town “yield excellent wine”. Such opinions are benign by the standards of modern travel guide writing. Nonetheless, they stick out because relatively few of them are to be found in the pages of Baedeker.

A Transylvanian Terminal - Kolozsvar Palyudvar (Klausenberg-Cluj Railway Station)

A Transylvanian Terminal – Kolozsvar Palyudvar (Klausenberg-Cluj Railway Station)

Ghost Journey -Passing Into History
In Baedeker’s defense, it must have taken a monumental amount of work just to assemble the Hungary and Transylvania portions of the Handbook for Travellers. Roads were in deplorable condition across most of the eastern areas in Hungary. The authors would have been largely limited to areas in and around railways. Travelers would have appreciated this thoroughness, where else could they learn that at the first station in Transylvania- Csucsa (Ciucea, Romania) – there was a restaurant. Such amenities are something modern train travelers would love to find in out of the way locales. The days of railway restaurants in small Transylvanian towns have long since passed into history, as have Baedeker’s Handbook for Travelers which once directed travelers to them.

The final stop on itinerary #69 was Klausenberg (Koloszvar/Cluj), the main hub of business, commerce and culture in Transylvania. A traveler who braved a trip outside of the main tourist season would have been especially interested in the city’s role as, “the headquarters of the numerous noblesse of Transylvania.” Baedeker remarked that because of this, “the town is very animated in winter.” Grand balls were held where aristocratic elegance was on display. One of the sites not included by Baedeker, but which can be visited today was the Banffy Palace. That was because in 1900 the palace was still the setting for the shimmering pageantry of what was once Transylvania’s greatest aristocratic family. The fact that the Banffy Palace can now be found in all the present day guidebooks, but not in the 1900 edition of Baedeker’s speaks volumes about the changes that have occurred since 1900 in Klausenberg. Baedeker had no idea of the transformation and tragedy still to come.

* Note on place names: Klausenberg is Kolozsvar in Hungarian and Cluj in Romanian; Grosswardein is Nagyvarad in Hungarian and Oradea in Romanian

Click here for: Klausenberg To Kolozsvar To Cluj – A Transylvanian Transition: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Three)

 

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)

A Shared Legacy: Romanians, Hungarians, Matthias Corvinus & the Identity of Cluj

Cluj-Napoca (commonly known as Cluj), the largest city in Transylvania, holds a special place in the hearts of Romanians and Hungarians. To Romanians it is a university city. The 50,000 strong student population of Babes-Bolyai University gives the city a vibrant, pulsating energy. As one of the largest cities in Romania, it has a thriving economy that has done much better than the rest of the country. This comparative wealth has made it a magnet for the youth of Romania who are looking to get ahead and enjoy a better quality of life more in line with other European Union nations. To Hungarians, it will forever be known as Kolozsvar, once the capital of Erdely (the Hungarian name for Transylvania). Koloszvar was the urban and cultural heart of a land Hungarians see as inseparable from their history. Erdely was cut asunder from Historic Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. This left the ethnic Hungarian population of Cluj isolated deep in the heart of Transylvania. This has left them yearning for what a lost past. This longing colored relations between the Romanians and Hungarians throughout the 20th century and was the central force in Cluj’s history for nearly a century.

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

From Majority to Minority – The Hungarians of Cluj
The fact that Hungarians continued to be the majority ethnic group in Cluj long after the Treaty took effect meant they were a force to be reckoned with in the city’s economic, political and cultural life. Hungary was even able to regain their beloved Koloszvar, along with northern Transylvania, as a gift (or a bribe) from Hitler for entering World War II on the German side. This gift proved to be both ephemeral and costly. It vanished as ill-gotten gains so often do. This left Koloszvar’s Hungarian population in limbo once again. As late as 1948 Hungarians still made up 57% of Cluj’s population. With the communists taking control of post-war Romania, the Hungarian population became a distrusted ethnic group stuck in the wrong country at the worst time. Hungarians had held economic power in the city for centuries. The communists soon limited the civil rights of Cluj’s Hungarian population. Communist oppression proved overwhelming. The ethnic Hungarian populace sought refuge abroad.

Those who were unable to flee the city, suffered mightily under the policies fomented by the iron fisted dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu was deeply suspicious of all ethnic Hungarians, branding them enemies of the state. In 1974 the communists led by Ceaucescu decided to change the name of Cluj to Cluj-Napoca. Napoca being the pre-Roman name for a city that stood on the site of Cluj two thousand years before. It was a lackluster attempt to prove that Romanians predated Hungarians in Transylvania by a thousand years. Ceaucescu’s efforts to settle historical disputes with pompous decrees turned out to be short-lived. On Christmas Day 1989, Romanians as well as ethnic Hungarians cheered as he was relegated to the dustbin of history. He was arrested, quickly given a show trial where he was found guilty of crimes against his own people. Within hours he had been executed, along with his wife. As for Cluj-Napoca, nearly everyone still refers to the city as Cluj. After the fall of Ceaucescu, ethnic Hungarians sought to better their fortunes in other countries, namely Hungary. This emigration resulted in a large loss of the ethnic Hungarian population in Cluj. Presently they make up only 16% of the city’s population.

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group - in Cluj's Union Square

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group – in Cluj’s Union Square

A Shared Legacy – The Birthplace of Matthias Corvinus
The present situation is an improvement over the not so distant past. Both Romania and Hungary are members of the European Union, which acts a strong guarantor of minority rights. This, along with the city’s relative prosperity has caused tensions to wane. Acts of violence by one group against the other are now scarce. The biggest barrier to integration is a deep sense of mistrust. This is the main legacy of the Ceaucescu era. Yet there are still some Romanians who would prefer that all the Hungarians in Cluj and Transylvania move to Hungary once and for all. Conversely, Hungarian nationalists (the large majority of whom live in Hungary) want Kolozsvar and Transylvania given back to Hungary. There is little chance either group of extremists will get there way. Commonalities between the two groups are rarely emphasized in the news. Conflict and controversy sell, peaceful coexistence does not.

Strangely enough in Cluj’s main square, Piati Unirai (Union Plaza) there is a statue that has proven contentious, despite the fact that it serves to emphasize a common historical figure who was both Romanian and Hungarian. This is the equestrian statue of the Great “Hungarian” King, Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus is remembered as the king who kept the Ottoman Turks at bay in the late 15th century. In addition, under his rule, Hungary became the first European state outside of Italy to experience the Renaissance. One of the most famous Corvinus historic sites, his birthplace, can be seen in Cluj.

St. Michael's Church - legacy of the Saxons

St. Michael’s Church – legacy of the Saxons

Identity Crisis – The Roots of a King
In the winter of 1443, Corvinus was born at a small guesthouse in Cluj. His father was none other than Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara to Romanians), Voivode (Governor) of Transylvania. A famed military figure who had worked his way through the ranks of the nobility to a leading position in the Kingdom of Hungary. Corvinus mother, Erzsbet Szilagyi, came from an influential Hungarian family. Now what’s interesting is that Hunyadi, who is celebrated as a national hero by Hungarians was also partly Romanian. He descended from a noble family of Wallachian origin. Wallachia was the historic heart of Romania. At the time, chronicles referred to Hunyadi as Valchus (the Wallachian). This means that Corvinus was half-Hungarian and half Romanian. Both Hunyadi and Corvinus are lauded as Hungarian national heroes, but no one much bothers to mention their Romanian blood. At the heart of Cluj’s inner town lies the Matthias Corvinus statuary group.

Ever since the Iron Curtain was swept aside there has been talk of removing the statue. The larger than life sculpture portrays Corvinus in heroic fashion, towering above the viewer. Below him are four of his leading generals (admittedly they were all Hungarian). Instead of arguing about whether the statuary group should be removed, perhaps an information board or plaque of some type should be placed close by to inform visitors, especially Cluj’s citizenry, that it’s most famous son is reflective of the city’s multi-ethnic history. Corvinus was one of the greatest kings in history. That is something everyone in Cluj should be proud of. His dual ethnicity illuminates the complex and conflicted history of the area. Cluj and Transylvania was an ethnically mixed place, it still is today.

Speaking of mixed up, the Corvinus statuary group stands in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral. This mighty Gothic structure is one of the finest examples of a medieval hall church in Europe. It is a product of the German Saxons who called the city Klausenberg. In Transylvania, the deeper one digs into history, the more complicated and diverse it gets. No one in Cluj really owns the past, instead they all share it.