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

The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad

I liked Sopron so much that for the second day in a row I took to the surrounding countryside for a day trip. The attraction of Koszeg was such that I could not resist. When a place is given the title “Jewel Box of Hungary” it deserves a visit. From the sound of it, Koszeg was what Hungary would have been without World Wars and communism. That is if the country had been left to develop on its own without foreign interference. Of course, every European country could say the same thing, but in Hungary there was a sense that history had been unkind to it. That Hungary’s greatness had been thwarted by foreign interlopers. As for Koszeg, it was said to have largely escaped wartime damage. That would turn out to be only half true, depending on what war was being referenced. I would discover the damage from World War II was more human than structural, whereas the damage from the Ottoman Turks was both.

Before making these discoveries I first had to find my way to Koszeg. By train this was not as simple as the map made it look. There was not a direct line by rail between Sopron and Koszeg, though the latter was just 45 kilometers south of the former. The problem was that Austria was in the way. Thus, I would first have to travel to Szombathely by train and then take a short branch line to Koszeg. I found this to be an annoyance. That was until I arrived at Szombathely, where I was surprised and delighted by the train that would take me to Koszeg. The train only consisted of two cars, looking more like an elongated bus on rails. Covered in yellow paint, with a few green markings, the cars were eye catching and lively looking. The branch line to Koszeg was worth it just for the ride on this little train.

Koszeg - Jurisics ter in the foreground

Koszeg – Jurisics ter in the foreground

The Last Hold Outs – A Commander & A Castle
After arriving at the railway station in Koszeg I discovered it was a bit of a walk to the town center. When I arrived in Koszeg’s Old Town I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was so colorful and vibrant that I could almost taste it. The Renaissance and Baroque era buildings were coated in a rich array of colors that made the cityscape look good enough to eat. There was architectural eye candy on offer throughout the cobbled squares and streets. The heart of quaint old Koszeg was Jurisics ter (Jurisics Square). That was a name that would soon become familiar to me. Jurisics would forever be associated with Koszeg, albeit a very different one from the marvelously atmospheric town that exists today. It was Nikola Jurisics who not only saved Koszeg from the Ottoman Turkish threat, but some would also argue Vienna. For his efforts, the castle had been named after him.

Of all the buildings worth seeing in Koszeg, Jurisics Var (Jurisics Castle) was one of the least impressive. Remnants of its old walls were so busted and battered that they did not look particularly evocative of any great defensive work. Behind them stood the inner castle, a group of towers and buildings covered in a brownish-red coat of color that appeared a little too refined for my taste. Meanwhile the entryway looked like the run up to a large inn. It was hard to imagine this was the same castle that had resisted nineteen assaults by the Ottoman army of Sultan Suleiman. Truth be told, the present-day castle was only a rough approximation of what had stood on the site during the siege of 1532. Most of that castle had been consumed by a great fire in 1777. The town had honored its history by having the castle reconstructed.

Nikola Jurisics statue - Entrance to Jurisics Castle

Nikola Jurisics statue – Entrance to Jurisics Castle (Credit: Pan Peter 12)

Creation By Destruction – To Do The Impossible
Fire was a recurring theme in the history of Koszeg. The town had been torched several times, more by accident or incident rather than at the hands of foreign foes. The threat of fire was of such concern that smokers incurred large fines. Anyone suspected of arson could be termed a “villain” and sentenced to fifty lashes. Such painful punishments certainly commanded the attention of potential offenders. While fire was a mortal threat, it also helped create the Koszeg which stands today. Disastrous infernos were an opportunity for urban renewal. As a history buff, I would have been interested to see the original wooden and mud caulked houses of medieval Koszeg, but I doubt this would have brought in many tourists. The current townscape was much more pleasing to aesthetic sensibilities, even if much of the architectural history did not reach back any earlier than the 17th century.

It was an earlier aspect of Koszeg’s history that Jurisics Castle recalled, if not in form at least in spirit. This was where Jurisics commanded a force of 700 men facing an Ottoman Army numbering close to a hundred thousand. What ensued was a 25 day siege, that halted the Ottoman movement toward Vienna. From the start Jurisics’ force was close to the point of exhaustion, but somehow held out long enough to exhaust the Ottoman Army’s will to fight. How did such an outmanned and outgunned force manage to hold out against incredible odds? In a word , leadership. Nikola Jurisics was more than a commander, he was a leader. He convinced his ragtag group of defenders – mainly Hungarian peasants – that they could do the impossible. Jurisics and the defenders also got lucky. Heavy rains came at the end of August, which helped persuade the Sultan to withdraw his troops. Thus, the siege of Koszeg may helped save Vienna from the impending Ottoman threat. Paradoxically, Koszeg also saved the Habsburgs at the expense of Hungary. Ottoman rule over much of Hungary solidified in the years after the siege.

The Last Hold Out - Jurisics Castle

The Last Hold Out – Jurisics Castle

Point of Departure – Historical Developments
As for Koszeg it had managed to escape Ottoman occupation. This allowed it to develop more normally, akin to that of Austria rather than Hungary. That development brought in German merchants who spearheaded the economy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet it was also Germans who brought the next wave of destruction to the town. This destruction left the city’s beautiful Old Town untouched. The same could not be said for Koszeg’s small Jewish community. They were not so lucky. I would never have known this, except for a photo I would see in a book many months after my visit. That photo made me look at Koszeg quite differently, specifically its train station, which In 1944 had acted as a point of departure to Auschwitz.

Click here for:  Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

Kőszeg: Jewel Box Of Hungary – The History We See, The History We Believe

Kőszeg is what be termed “dramatically cute.” This historic town in extreme western Hungary, a handful of kilometers from the Austrian border, offers a feast for the eyes. It transports visitors back to an age where burghers once walked the streets, terra cotta roofs towered above the townscape and brightly painted buildings flashed a full spectrum of colors. Today, the old merchants are gone, but numerous buildings remain, creating an ensemble of aesthetic architectural beauty. The effect of Kőszeg’s architecture is both physical and psychological. Physical in the sense that its structural aesthetics are so well defined, it seems impossible that it could have ever existed in any other state than its current one. The town’s urban environment imposes itself upon the imagination. Psychological because the town’s architectural atmospherics are enough to make visitors believe that they are walking backward in time to the 17th and 18th centuries. Renaissance and Baroque architecture predominates throughout the pristine Belváros (Inner City).  One of the more amazing things about Kőszeg is how it is of the past, but does not seem stuck within it. This is a vibrant town where history informs the present as much as it does the past. Because of this, it is all the more shocking to discover that the present has been much easier on Kőszeg than the past.

Church of the Sacred Heart - Kőszeg, Hungary

From Neo-Gothic to Baroque – Kőszeg’s Church of the Sacred Heart with a plague column in the foreground

Perception Informs History – The Fantasy Of Kőszeg
Present day Kőszeg contains a highly subjective portrayal of history, showcasing both what people want to see and what they want to believe as it pertains to the past. The look and feel of the place today reveals more about human vanity, than it actually does about the town itself. It is a grand historical illusion and there is nothing really wrong with that. This is in no way meant to disparage Kőszeg. Each place should be allowed to nurse a historical fantasy, especially in Hungary where the past has been a lot less than pleasant. The interesting thing is that Kőszeg did not really exist in its current “historical” form until the end of the 19th century, though much of its architecture gives the idea that it is has been there for many centuries. Instead the past on display at Kossel has been pieced together. It does not constitute a whole from any certain era, instead remnants and fragments have formed into a collective.

One representation of this historical reality is front and center at the Church of the Sacred Heart, an eye catching piece of neo-Gothicism that is quite out of proportion with the square it soars over. An otherworldly fantasy, it works because of its sheer dissimilarity with the immediate surroundings. It was built in 1894 close to the heart of the inner town. Baroque is considered the quintessential architectural style in Kőszeg, but the church calls into question this stereotypical view. Sure it is only one structure, but it surmounts all its immediate surroundings. The long shadow of Sacred Heart casts itself upon the old town. Could an 18th century burgher have imagined such a fanciful creation here, it seems highly unlikely.

Kőszeg's Városháza (Town Hall)

Kőszeg’s Városháza (Town Hall)

Flames & Remains – The Reality of Kőszeg
When it comes to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Kőszeg has it in spades. There are hybrid examples such as the Városháza (Town Hall) and Sgraffito House which combine elements of multiple styles. Ornate columns display Holy Trinity and Holy Virgin statues from the Baroque era. A stone’s throw away is the late Renaissance St. Imre’s Church and late Gothic Church of St. James. It is as though the constructions of centuries past have been placed in close proximity to one another in order to engage the visitor in historical comparisons, contrasts and conversations. For all those historical structures still standing in Kőszeg, much more has been lost. The town famously held off a Turkish siege in 1532 against incredible odds, but most of it was left in ruins. Prior to the 20th century Kőszeg was reconstructed time and again. That makes the town which is on display today all the more remarkable. It was one of the few places in Hungary lucky enough to escape the ravages of World War II and the long period of communist rule that followed. The majority of medieval and early modern Kőszeg is gone. It went up in flames at the hands of invaders or surprisingly its own citizens. Kőszeg had a terrible problem with fire. Smoking was banned in the town after fires repeatedly gutted it during the 17th and 18th centuries. A law was instituted that anyone caught smoking was to be given 50 lashes.

Today much of the Belváros is built atop the rubble and ashes of wooden houses that succumbed to numerous conflagrations. The beautiful historic houses found throughout the inner city were lucky to have lasted at all. Many of their architectural ancestors lie beneath the cobblestone streets. Life and fate were not kind to Kőszeg in the early modern age, but that’s at odds with the impression of refinement on display today. The question comes to mind: Were these houses built to last or are they just the last lucky vestiges of their line? Here was the reality of history in Hungary for centuries: capricious, schizophrenic and unpredictable. If the citizens of 18th century Kőszeg were to visit the town today, they would probably be surprised to find so much of the architecture they inhabited still intact. In their own lifetimes, they had suffered through and then rebuilt after a succession of calamities. War, plague and fire remade Kőszeg. In turn, Kőszegians recreated the town. At some point in the 20th century the constructions and reconstructions stopped. Except for restorations, history became frozen. This is the history of Kőszeg that tens of thousands of visitors gawk at each year. It is the past and at the same time, nothing like it.

Buildings in Kőszeg 's Belváros (Inner City)

Colorful buildings line the cobblestone streets in Kőszeg’s Belváros (Inner City)

Window Shopping History
The paradoxical nature of what remains of Kőszeg’s historic architecture will not stop visitors from seeing every street as a museum, every building as a monument and every square as a gallery. Never mind that it only came to look this way in the 20th century. The “historical” Kőszeg that stands today only exists in the present. In truth, the only constant was change and uncertainty, upheaval and reclamation. Present-day Kőszeg gives only glimpses into the reality of that past. What’s really on display is a shop window of history, it looks great from the outside, but the true cost never really gets advertised.