The Days We Die – First & Last Goodbyes:  Leaving Banffy Castle Behind (An Invitation To A Vanished Past – Part Seven)

I always feel a deep sadness when leaving a place I have finally been able to visit. With my goal attained the question of “Now what?” consumes me. The feeling I have during these moments is reminiscent of how I used to feel on Christmas morning after opening all the gifts. An empty malaise, when hope and expectation are gone. The nothing that comes next would leave a void. When this happens with travel, the feeling can only be replaced by another seemingly impossible trip.

The sadness that consumed me as l walked away from Banffy Castle was much greater than what I had previously felt on other occasions. Perhaps that had to do with middle age and the realization that time was running out on me. There was little chance I would ever come back here. I have too many other places I want to visit. A return trip seems highly improbable. And yet Transylvania is a place that never really leaves you, even after you leave it. The mesmerizing beauty of its landscapes, its diverse blend of peoples, folk culture that infuses its art and architecture with a unique rusticity, all serve to create a sense of magical wonder that lingers in the memory.

A lasting impression - Banffy Castle

A lasting impression – Banffy Castle

To Live & To Leave – The End Of A Dream
After walking out the arched entrance way, I turned around on several occasions to catch a last glimpse of Banffy Castle. I was saying goodbye to a dream from which I was now just beginning to awaken. I only spent a couple of hours at the castle and had come to feel attached. Miklos Banffy had spent a large part of his life there. I wondered how Banffy must have felt the last time he saw his beloved home. It would have been a depressing site after the ravages of warfare. Perhaps he imagined trying to salvage what was left, to rebuild or reconstruct. Or perhaps he knew that all was lost. At that time the castle was as much rubble as ruin.  At least I had a choice whether or not to come back, Banffy ended up leaving Transylvania in 1949 for Budapest to be with his wife and daughter, knowing full well that he would not be able or willing to return. It had taken him several years just to get permission to cross the border from Romania into Hungary. A return would have been too difficult, especially for an old man whose health was on the verge of failing.

And would Banffy really have wanted to return? The castle was a smoldering pile on property that was no longer under his ownership. The communists were in the process of completely transforming Transylvania. At the same time, Hungarian aristocrats were branded enemies of the state. Banffy was lucky to be allowed to live and leave. He could just as easily have been arrested or even worse, shot.  A deep, penetrating sense of loss must have engulfed Banffy in the period between the end of World War II and when he finally left Transylvania four years later. There was no place in the Stalinist world for a man like Banffy. Humanist diplomats from ancient aristocratic families were persona non gratas. While toe the party line ideologues were in demand. This was a world that had been entirely rearranged by the war. Romanticism and sentimentality were out, brutalism and collectivization now held the region in an iron grip.

One last look - Miklos Banffy in his later years

One last look – Miklos Banffy in his later years

The Wicked Irony – A Spiritual Death
Cluj, the city where Banffy stayed during his final years in Transylvania, most have felt like a wicked irony. He had successfully negotiated it as an open city in 1944, sparing it the bullets and bombs of the Red Army. The man who had helped save a city full of treasures, had his own destroyed or in the case of his palace in Cluj, stolen from him. As a man of the theater he understood drama and tragedy all too well, but this was theater of the absurd on a whole new level with continuous acts of unreality. This included the fact that there was no time left for him to say goodbye. Maybe not being able to say goodbye was for the best, after all there was nothing left but memories to mourn. Sometimes goodbye means turning a cold shoulder to the truth, not so much in contempt as indifference. Banffy was a man of great passion I doubt he could have done this. It would have killed him. Then again maybe it did kill him. His life ended in Budapest only in a physical sense. Spiritually he died the day he left Transylvania for the last time.

I was leaving Transylvania, but unlike Banffy it would not be for the last time. Nothing stood in my way of returning other than work and money. Yet I would never be able to return here for the first time. I could not replicate my own experience. Coming back to the castle again and again would only be a futile attempt at recapturing a highly personalized piece of the past. It would be like an alcoholic or drug addict always chasing their first high. All returns are diminished. Innocence can only be lost one time. The thought of this engulfed me with sadness. I knew as I walked away, this goodbye was forever. And once again I was left with the question of “Now what?” My answer was a thumbs up and out, an attempt to flee faster than I had arrived. This meant hitchhiking, something that I had hardly ever done before.

A final glimpse - Banffy Castle

A final glimpse – Banffy Castle

Acts Of Rural Kindness – The Only Way To Say Goodbye
Here I was in a foreign land, unable to speak the mother tongue, with my red hair and southern accent I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was not long before a delivery van stopped to pick me up. In my experience, acts of rural kindness are universal and global, Transylvania was no different. The driver could not speak a word of English, but I knew the Romanian word for train station, “Gara.” He nodded in understanding. The ride was short and uneventful, retracing my earlier footsteps in a matter of minutes. This was the only way I could say goodbye to Banffy Castle and Bontida, to get away as fast as I could.

An Entire World On One Foundation – Banffy Castle: The Problem & The Solution (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Six)

“The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it seemed like summer.” That is the first sentence of Miklos Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy. I could have said much the same thing as I stood just inside the entrance to Banffy Castle in Bontida, Count Banffy’s home for much of his life. The sun shown down with a ferocious glare that felt out of season. Instead of early September, it was late in that same month, but it might as well have been July such was the heat. I was glad to have finally arrived at the castle after a four kilometer trek that had taken in much of the village. I was tired and haggard, the walk was not what I expected, neither was the castle. I had expected to find an evocative ruin, a bit of magic in the crumbling edifice. What I found was a place in a paradoxical state of disrepair and restoration.

The grandeur of ruin - Banffy Castle

The grandeur of ruin – Banffy Castle (Credit: Daria Virbanescu)

Grandeur & Glamour, Romance & Loss  – In Vacant Ruins
The hollowed out shell of several structures at Banffy Castle, including the main house and stables, provided hints of past greatness. Despite over a decade and a half of restoration efforts, the irreparable damage wrought by warfare was the most notable aspect of the castle as it now stands. There was not much left of the Baroque or earlier Renaissance stylistic elements that made the castle’s architecture so well known. To be quite honest if it was not for the literary renown of Miklos Banffy I seriously doubt there would be many visitors, if any at all, to what was left of the castle. There are hundreds of abandoned manor houses and ruined castles all over Transylvania just like this one. Banffy Castle was different from all the others because of Banffy’s portrayal of it as Denestornya in the trilogy. This brought people on pilgrimages to visit the ruins. It was certainly what had brought me here.

The glorious past - Banffy Castle in 1890

The glorious past – Banffy Castle in 1890

Walking around the grounds and through what was left of the structures gave me some idea of the environment Banffy lived, worked and loved in. Though most of the buildings were mere shadows of their former selves, it was enough to walk on a dirt floor, down a hallway or corridor while imagining what intrigues of passion and politics had occurred there. Or to look in a room, imagine Banffy in conversation with the woman who became the model for his main character’s ill-fated love in the trilogy, Adrienne Miloth. There was romance in these vacant ruins and also loss. Photos of the interiors, on signboards showed spectacularly lavish furnishings. A whole way of life had once existed within these walls, then in a thirty year period from 1914 through 1944 it had been all but vanquished. Every attempt at restoration and reconstruction of the castle since the 1990’s had been done in the hopes of reviving some semblance of the grandeur and glamour of the Hungarian nobility’s way of life.

The way they were - life at Banffy Castle in 1890

The way they were – life at Banffy Castle in 1890

A past that can never be quite restored - Banffy Castle

A past that can never be quite restored – Banffy Castle (Credit: Sipos Kinga)

The Power Of Art – The Power Of Place
What I found most interesting was not what had been lost, but the power of what was still standing. The ruins of Banffy Castle had outlasted the historical processes and events that had done so much damage to them. The fascist Nazis had pillaged and burned much of the castle in 1944, but within a year Nazism had been defeated and destroyed. The Soviet Army had also looted here, but the Stalinist system they represented had long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. Later the Ceaucescu regime had allowed parts of the castle ruins to be blown to bits during the making of a movie, but Ceaucescu would meet a bad end, executed after a show trial. His reign of terror was now only a memory, he and his system exposed as a megalomaniacal fraud. And after all the evil deeds perpetrated upon it, still a remnant of Banffy Castle stood, silent and stoic, symbol of a glorious way of life much admired, awaiting resurrection.

Slowly the castle was being brought back from the brink of extinction because the timeless values of the society it represented – honor, duty, loyalty – were always in demand. There was a lesson to be learned here, about the power of art and architecture to overcome the worst excesses of humanity. Miklos Banffy’s writing had eventually defeated armies, ideologies and dictators. The same could be said of the architecture of Banffy Castle, these ruins had a magnetic allure, communicating their power to the viewer. An entire world had been constructed upon their foundation.

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

Creating & Preserving – Banffy For The Sake Of Humanity
In the midst of all these epiphanies one little detail caught my eye and has remained with me ever since, scrawled on the wall in the stables was a question, “Are you part of solution or are you part of problem?” This work of scratch graffiti was more appropriate than the vandalizing soothsayer could have ever imagined. Banffy’s trilogy was called The Writing On The Wall in reference to writing that appeared on a wall during the feast of Belshazzar, which is recounted in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Each of the three titles in the trilogy: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided were lines of warning. The question that had been scrawled on the wall could also be read as a warning, causing me to reflect on my own role in a world, much like Banffy’s, seemingly on the verge of ruinous upheaval.

Was I going to be part of the solution? Or was I going to be part of the problem, the cynicism and negativity, the extremist passions that threatened to destroy yet another world? The problem was clear, but what was the solution? Banffy may hold that answer for both me and humanity. The solution is art, art that reveals the world in all its various guises and disguises, art that cultivates understanding and combats ignorance. Art that can be found on every page of Banffy’s trilogy. Art that can be found by visiting the ruins and resurrection of Banffy Castle in Bontida. And art scrawled on the wall of a half-ruined stable, that made me reflect on what really matters, creating and preserving like Miklos Banffy did…for the sake of humanity.

Coming soon: The Days We Die – First & Last Goodbyes:  Leaving Banffy Castle Behind (An Invitation To A Vanished Past – Part Seven)

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

On my next to last day in Cluj I made the pilgrimage to Bontida, home to the ruins of Banffy Castle, the place that looms largest in Miklos Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy of books. It felt odd purchasing a ticket at the train station in Cluj for a trip to what I believed was a small village. Usually I am buying train tickets to major cities or famous destinations in Eastern Europe, not to sleepy Transylvanian backwaters. I imagined that Bontida would only be served by a local bus at the end of some bone jarring road. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when I learned that Bontida had a train station. While reading Banffy’s trilogy I had formulated an idea in my mind that the castle – which in the books is known as Denestornya – was in a remote, heavily forested area. I was mistaken. Bontida was a sizable village on the main rail and road route between Cluj and Dej. Bontida had a population of almost 5,000, much more than the usual village. I am sure the area was much less populated 125 years ago when Banffy called it home. The village and castle were intimately connected, both then and now. The trip to the Bontida rail station took only about 45 minutes by train. I would soon learn that the train ride was less than half my journey to the castle.

Bontida Train Station

Bontida Train Station

Disappearing Into The Distance – Carted Off
The Bontida station was not situated in a classic Transylvanian landscape. The only mountains were far off in the distance, a low dark rise off on the horizon. Instead of forest, I saw rows of corn with stalks withered yellow by the first frosts of autumn. I had expected to get off the train and gain sight of a ruined castle in the near distance. Instead I found myself walking out to a long, straight and narrow paved road which I hoped would lead to Banffy Castle. Bontida began here and stretched along both sides of this road for several miles. Modest homes of different shapes and sizes with chipped paint or no paint at all bordered the road. Several other passengers had disembarked from the train with me, including a couple of young gypsy men, one of whom managed to procure a bike. He rode circles in the middle of the road before pedaling past me and disappearing into the distance.

It was an unseasonably warm day considering the season. Before long I was sweating profusely despite the dry air. The road appeared to be unending. The faster I walked, the longer it seemed to get. Every once in a while a car would speed by scattering dust. My imagination began to wander, reaching back into the early 20th century. I could see an immaculate horse drawn carriage meeting Miklos Banffy at the railway station and quickly spiriting him home to his beloved castle. If only I could have been so lucky. There were still horse drawn vehicles, but instead of carriages they were carts.

The horse drawn cart is a staple of rural Romania. In many places they outnumber cars. While walking along, I thought about hitching a ride on one of them. What made these carts unique was the fact that they had license plates attached to them. Each cart that trundled past was officially registered with the authorities. These carts were more a part of Romanian road transport than a brand new Dacia automobile. They were also a reminder of the perceived “backwardness” of rural Romania. But were they really a symbol of “backwardness” or a way of life lost to central and western Europeans.

Banffy Castle - the final approach

Banffy Castle – the final approach

A Lost Way Of Life – Of Romance & Ruin
In the near distance I spotted a large mechanized harvester slicing through the brown stalks of corn. The old and the new, industrial and pre-industrial, existed side by side here. I noticed that the villagers who were out in their yards all looked to be over seventy years old, part of an aging rural society where tradition never goes out of style. Most of the elderly were tending gardens, while many also had chickens running around their grounds. The soundtrack to Bontida was medley of horse’s hoofs pounding on pavement and rooster calls echoing forth, even during the light of day. Here was a quasi-subsistence way of life. It was an approximation of how my grandparents once lived. There was something heartening about the whole scene. I came to Bontida looking for history and I had found it, just not the type of history I had expected. This place was full of living history for me, but to the villagers of Bontida it was nothing more than everyday life.

I walked along the same road for almost four kilometers, after half an hour it became tedious. What I would later learn made me see this same road in a different light. In 1944 the Nazis looted Banffy Castle, which at the time held one of the most magnificent collections of paintings, furnishings and books in Transylvania. This was punishment for Miklos Banffy’s role in helping negotiate the peace that took Romania out of the war. In their usual, thorough Teutonic manner the Nazis cleaned out the castle’s valuables. They were packed into seventeen trucks, which were driven away from the castle probably down this very road I was walking along. The valuables did not make it back to Germany. They were blown to oblivion by allied bombing raids. The Nazis also left Banffy castle a smoldering ruin, setting fire to it before they left Bontida.

These flames of destruction were the castle’s final illumination before Transylvania was engulfed by the encroaching darkness of war, then communism and finally the venal machinations of the Ceaucescu regime. When all this turmoil and turbulence came to end with the execution the Ceaucescus on Christmas Day, 1989, Banffy Castle was nothing more than a hollowed out shell of its former self. Since that time there had been incredible attempts to resurrect it. What had been achieved over the past twenty-five years now stood before me as I made a final approach to the castle towards an arched entrance way, the portal to a past of romance and ruin.

Coming soon: An Entire World On One Foundation – Banffy Castle: The Problem & The Solution (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Six)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

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

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

Banffy Palace - historic postcard image

Banffy Palace – historic postcard image

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

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

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

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

Gypsy palace in Huedin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything In Its Path – The Train To Transylvania (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Two)

A journey to Transylvania sounds mysterious, adventurous and a bit scary. This has much to do with the Dracula effect. One imagines being set upon by superstitious villagers and ominous aristocrats living in drafty manor houses. At every rail siding there is a false expectation that passengers will be greeted by howling wolves leaping out of some dark, dingy forest. At least that was what happened to Jonathan Harker. My experience was quite different. After all I was chasing ghosts courtesy of Miklos Banffy, not a vampire from Bram Stoker’s imagination.

My journey started far away from Transylvania in the heart of Budapest, the city in which Banffy died in 1950, far away from his beloved castle which was now in ruin. I found myself in the half light of dawn boarding a train at Keleti (Eastern) station. The greatest danger to me did not come from suspicious peasants, but that I might board the wrong train, since I was still half asleep. I did not have any problem finding the train, boarding it with time to spare. The train was uncrowded, spacious and comfortable. I settled in for what I thought was going to be a relaxing eight hour trip to Cluj. I could not have been more wrong.

Train preparing to leave Keleti (Eastern) station in Budapest

Train preparing to leave Keleti (Eastern) station in Budapest

Border Crossing – An Outsider On Board
There was ongoing work on the railroad line close to the Hungary-Romania border. We would have to get off the train in eastern Hungary at the town of Puspokladany, then cross the border by bus into Romania, before boarding another train at Bors. I would have to purchase another train ticket once I got to Romania. The bus ride went from an interruption to an irritation to a major annoyance. We first traveled along a series of bumpy secondary roads. After being jolted back and forth for almost an hour it was a relief to arrive at the border crossing into Romania. For over half of Banffy’s life there was no border crossing here, this area had been part of Greater Hungary. World War I had changed the situation and from a traveler’s standpoint not for the better. Even though Romania and Hungary were both members of the European Union (EU), a hard border crossing still existed. It was here that the adventure began for me.

It turned out that I was the only one onboard who was not a citizen of an EU nation. While everyone’s passport or identification card was returned to them within a matter of minutes, I was left waiting. After a while the silence of the bus was broken by idle chatter that became increasingly agitated. One man on the bus looked in my direction and said “it’s the American.” He was inferring that I was the reason for the delay. I sank lower in my seat as the wait continued. Never has an extra twenty minutes seemed so long. The passengers were restless for a reason, if we did not get through passport control in time, we would miss the train from Bors to Cluj. No one wanted to wait in a dreary village station for another train.

Border crossing at Bors Romania

Border crossing at Bors Romania

Desperate Pleas – The Ticket To Cluj
Finally a border guard showed up and handed my passport back to the bus driver who then gave it to me. I felt a sense of relief, while several of my fellow passengers let out sighs of exasperation. We were free to go, but the question was whether we could still make the train on time. When we arrived at the Episcopia Bihor station I ran inside to find a ramshackle interior, which turned out to be a nightmare of dreary carelessness. The waiting room/ticketing area looked dirty and felt even dirtier. It gave the unwelcoming impression of hell with a roof on it. To my surprise the attendant informed me that she did not take credit cards. Nor would she accept Hungarian forints. Desperately I tried to shove some dollars at her. Perhaps a bribe might work. She would have none of this. I had to pay with Romanian lei. My desperate pleas for help elicited a half intelligible response that directed me to a nearby establishment.

I ran out of the station to a bar/restaurant. The man behind the counter offered to change lei for dollars. I pulled out a wad of twenty dollar bills and received nearly everything that was in the register. When he tried to hand me a few dollars back, I signaled for him to keep it. I ran back to the station where the train had already arrived. With my heart pounding, I rushed back to the ticket window where the attendant dutifully sold me a ticket to Cluj. I burst out the station doors, climbed aboard the train and found a car half filled with passengers from my bus ride. Several of them smiled kindly at me, a reversal from half an hour earlier. Soon we were on our way.

Episcopia Bihor Train Station

Episcopia Bihor Train Station

The World Turned Dizzy – Change For The Worse

Miklos Banffy made this same journey by train many times during his life while traveling between Bontida and Budapest. He carried out a large part of his professional life in the Hungarian capital. At the age of 28 he was elected to the Hungarian Parliament. After World War I he was Hungary’s Foreign Minister for a couple of years.  He also served as the Director of the Hungarian State Theaters for five years. As the train rolled eastward out of Bors toward the city of Oradea (Nagyvarad in Hungarian) I wondered what Banffy had seen in his time along this same stretch of railway. I imagined that it was highly pastoral, with peasants toiling in the lush, pancake flat fields.

The current scene could not have been more different. The train passed by a wretched industrial landscape. An ugly, towering factory that looked like a nightmare conjured up by the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu scarred the skyline. The ground was pockmarked with the residue of heavy industry. The sight was ghastly in the extreme, quite a welcome for newcomers from the west.  I was not going to find anything of Miklos Banffy in this landscape. Then again he had written about a fading way of life that was on the cusp of major change. And the change had come, transforming everything in its path.

An invitation to a vanished world

An invitation to a vanished world

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

The Journey To Bontida – Transylvania Trilogy (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part One)

The journey to Bontida and Banffy Castle began for me far away from Transylvania where both the village and castle are located. My journey began in the 6th District (Terezvaros) of Budapest inside Bestsellers bookstore. This fine establishment carries the largest inventory of English language books in the city. This includes an excellent selection of English language translations of Hungarian novels. This was where I first learned of The Writing On The Wall trilogy (Transylvania Trilogy in English) by Miklos Banffy. I spotted three large paperback books stacked side by side on shelves. Each had a rather austere and direct title. The first volume, They Were Counted, had a cover photo of a grand manor house with several people standing outside a double arched entrance. The second volume, They Were Found Wanting, showed three horse drawn carriages just outside another entrance to what looked the same manor house. The final book, They Were Divided, was a bit slimmer than the other two thick volumes. Its cover photo showed an arched exit from some type of walled courtyard or stable.

The usual celebratory blurbs for reviews written on the backsides of each volume recommended them to potential readers. My favorite of these was one from The Guardian which began by saying that the trilogy “charts this glittering spiral of decline.” Such phraseology and the fact that the books concerned Transylvania piqued my interest. This was a Transylvania of which I was unfamiliar, instead of vampires or legends of Count Dracula there was a vanished world of Hungarian aristocracy. I did not purchase any of the books right away, lugging around three volumes of a combined 1,392 pages for the rest of a trip that would take me on into Serbia and Bulgaria did not seem like a good idea at the time. I wrote down Banffy’s name and Transylvania Trilogy so I could order them when I got back home.

The Transylvania Trilogy of Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy of Miklos Banffy

Creating A Universe All Its Own – The Magic Of Miklos Banffy
Several weeks later Banffy’s Trilogy arrived in the mail. It took me a couple of months to read all three volumes, but it was an experience so good that I plan on repeating it one day. For me the sign of a great book is that it creates a universe the reader can inhabit, a universe all its own that cannot be found anywhere else other than between that book’s pages. Banffy manages to create such a universe and keep it going across all three volumes. His writing is semi-autobiographical, reflecting personal affairs and acquaintances. It also delves deeply into the politics of Austria-Hungary, including the rise of ethnic nationalism in the lead up to the First World War. Banffy paints a vivid portrait of a fading aristocratic class that is depraved and demented, on the cusp of cataclysm. Even more impressively, Banffy brings the windswept plateaus, deep, dark forests and alpine landscapes of Transylvania to life. The fierce beauty and magical wonder of the environment are eloquently rendered.

The book’s core story revolves around an ill-fated romance between Balint Abady and the unhappily married Ady Uzdy. Surrounding the love affair is the decline and fall of a host of characters including Balint’s cousin Laszlo, Ady’s increasingly mentally ill husband Pal Uzdy and various personages who represent the decadence at the heart of aristocratic society in Transylvania during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Love, jealousy, duty, loyalty and betrayal all come into play. By the end of the third book I felt an intimacy with the characters, era and landscape that made them not so much larger than life, but a part of life. The life that was pervasive in Transylvania before it fell into perpetual decline.

Miklos Banffy - author of The Writing On The Wall Trilogy

Miklos Banffy – author of The Writing On The Wall Trilogy (Credit: Lipót Strelisky)

Resurrecting A Ruin – A World Back To Life
The books were so good that they made me want to experience this world for myself. I began to note the place names, wondering if any of them might still offer a window into the world Banffy wrote about. The logical starting point was Kolozsvar (known by its Romanian name of Cluj-Napoca today) which was mentioned many times. It was and still is today the largest city in Transylvania, the region’s commercial and cultural capital. After doing some research, I discovered that Banffy was buried in Cluj. Of greater interest, the manor house where many important scenes in the books are set was still standing in the village of Bontida, not far from Cluj. From what I could find much of it was in ruins, but was being restored. Known as Banffy Kastely, it suffered grave damage near the end of World War II.

Banffy had spearheaded a futile attempt to arrange peace with the Soviet Union to try and forestall the Red Army’s overwhelming onslaught into Hungary during 1944. Banffy was trying to pull Hungary out of their alliance with Nazi Germany, realizing that Hungary was on the edge of catastrophe. His peace overture ultimately failed. The Nazis retaliated by looting, burning and ruining much of the castle, including one of the best libraries in all of Europe. Following the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989, the castle slowly came back into historical consciousness, helped in no small part by the publishing and translation of Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy. Efforts to make it something more than a mere ruin were being boosted by its present role as a heritage restoration field school.

Banffy Castle - a chance to chase ghosts

Banffy Castle – a chance to chase ghosts

A Chance To Chase Ghosts – Seeking Shadows & Light
All of this information had a magnetic effect upon me. I began to dream of visiting the castle, of walking in the footsteps of Banffy and his characters who seemed to exist in a timeless world of romance, passion and conflicting emotions. I felt a sense of enchantment, as though I could travel into a fantasy, albeit one that was filled more with shadow than light. Here was a chance to chase ghosts, perhaps even to catch a glimpse of one in some forgotten corner of a Transylvanian valley. Imagination began to overtake reality. Thus I planned to make the trek to Cluj via Budapest by train. From Cluj I would find my way onto Bontida, to see for myself what could be discovered of a lost world.

Click here for: Everything In Its Path – The Train To Transylvania (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Two)

They Who Owe Me Everything – Miklos Banffy & Leipnik: On The Distant Shores Of Exile

One of the major faults of history is that so much of it tends to consist of an endless litany of facts and details. This comes at the expense of the compelling human drama that makes the past really come to life. When it comes to Eastern Europe, the standard national histories are almost always generally bland. These contain reams of statistics in place of anecdotes and avoid human interest stories in order to focus on broad political and economic trends. To find the meat and potatoes of history (and Eastern Europe has long subsisted quite literally on meat and potatoes) I look for first person accounts from people who made or were shaped by historical events. Once in a while I stumble across not only a great story about Eastern Europe, but also one that illuminates an entire age. Such stories are rarely found in standard history books, but they can often be found in memoirs.

Miklos Banffy in 1916

The eventual author – Miklos Banffy in 1916 before he authored The Phoenix Land or The Transylvania Trilogy

A Transylvanian Renaissance Man
One of the memoirs from an Eastern European that I would highly recommend is Miklos Banffy’s The Phoenix Land. Banffy was a Transylvanian aristocrat whose life and times were influenced by many important events including the golden age of Austria-Hungary, the First World War and its chaotic aftermath, the bitter interwar period that led to the cataclysm of World War II. Banffy was an active observer and participant in many of these events. He was something of a modern Renaissance man, involved in politics as a Member of the Hungarian Parliament eventually working his way up to a short stint as the Foreign Minister. He was also Director of the Hungarian State Theaters which during the World War I. This position made him the master of ceremonies for the coronation of the last Habsburg King, Karl I in Budapest. Posthumously, Banffy gained fame for his authorship of the famous three-volume Transylvanian Trilogy (They Were CountedThey Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided) that paints an unforgettable picture of aristocratic behavior in Transylvania during the early 20th century. He also authored a wonderful memoir, The Phoenix Land, which offers a look at his career in politics especially during the aftermath of World War I, a time when Hungary lost much of its territorial integrity.

In one part of that book Banffy recounts the adventures he had in 1919 while serving as an envoy to represent the interests of the Szekely, a Hungarian speaking people who inhabit the Eastern Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. As part of his duties, Banffy tries to make his way to Great Britain where he can speak on behalf of the Szekely to post-war peacemakers. Banffy is quintessential wandering Hungarian, set adrift from his homeland by the outcome of war, something that occurred on countless occasions to Hungarians during the 20th century. He ends up in the Netherlands searching for someone who can help him get across the channel and gain access to peacemakers in England. Banffy, a man who heretofore in life had enjoyed the privileges of wealth and power that flowed from his elite, aristocratic background is reduced to searching the very fringes of society for help. This brings him into an unforgettable meeting with a deeply disturbed Hungarian exile, a man whose personality and principles are an unsettling example of deep rooted bitterness, cynicism and recrimination. The man known as Leipnik displays a disturbing array of reactionary emotions, the same ones that would come to plague both Hungary and Europe during the interwar years.

The strand in Scheveningen as it looked at the turn of the 20th century

Better days behind them – The strand in Scheveningen as it looked at the turn of the 20th century

On The Fringes Of A Stormy Sea
As Banffy relates: I had some other sources to tap as well. One of these led me a to a man of somewhat dubious reputation but who was one of those characters that come to the surface in wartime. He was a Mr. Leipnik of Hungarian descent but long resident in England. As far as I could gather he was regarded everywhere, at home as well as abroad, as a most suspicious character…He had prophesied the downfall of the Central Powers in the newspapers of several countries and had suggested that salvation would only be found in the same system of universal brotherhood as the League of Nations…

Mr. Leipnik lived at Scheveningen in one of those enormous fashionable hotels built along the seashore. When I went to see him there it was February, and the six-storey hotel, the last before one reached the northern dunes, had a forlorn air since most of the hundreds of windows were closed and the portico boarded up. Everything that during the high season in summer would be bright with flowers and color and new paint, was shabby, grey and battered. Everywhere, including the garden, seemed abandoned and strewn with rubbish. To reach his tiny room on God knows which upper floor I had to climb up a service stair. There, at last, I found the excellent Mr. Leipnik.

He was a short man, thin and grey and wrinkled. His face was line with deep furrows, and he was as yellow as a lemon. Also, alas, just as sour!

After a few polite preliminaries, I went straight to the point. How could I get to England?
“If I knew that I’d be there myself?” was the answer.
This was not a promising start, but as I persevered it soon became clear that my visit was for nothing.

He abused the English passionately – and every other Entente nation as well – complaining bitterly that during the “they” had all been only too happy to make use of him but now, now “they” didn’t care a hoot.

After hearing this I might just as well have gone straight back to The Hague, but now he started to interest me as an example of human oddity, and so I stayed smoking innumerable cigarettes, and from time to time throwing in a word or two to keep him talking. This he did, airing countless grievances. He went on for a long time, talking without cease even when it started to get dark, walking up and down in that little room which was barely four meters from the door to the window overlooking the sea.

He abused everybody: he hated everybody. He declared that “they” all owed everything to his noble ideas and generous spirit. Karolyi and Jaszi had taken all of their ideas from him but had no idea how to realize them – and not only that but they were stupid enough now not even to seek his advice.

It was the same with Lloyd George and Clemenceau – and Salandra – and everyone else too. They had without exception battened on him and stolen his ideas and were now merrily living it up in luxurious Parisian palaces , eating and drinking and toasting each other while he, the great Leipnik, was totally excluded. Even though their success was due to his wonderful ideas, they would not give him any credit. Of course they were full of envy and without talent, an so they saw to it that he was not only squeezed out and kept away from their counsels but also condemned to live here, in the misery of this shabby cold room, staring at the bleak ocean from the unheated squalor of this dreadful hole! This was their gratitude. This, their thanks, and this was how he was treated! He went on for a long time, not exactly in these words, but endlessly repeating a theme that never changed.

There was something essentially dramatic in the way that, as the room grew darker, his shape became silhouetted against the big bay window with its greenish shimmering background of an ocean here an there covered with grey fog – that “bitter sea” of Homer – an infinity of angry waves, their crests forever revealing that eternal, useless, restless wrath as it hammered itself against the hotel’s sea walls with a rhythmic monotonous roar.

Whenever I think about Leipnik, this is how I still see him, pacing up and down, up and down, endlessly repeating his litany of illusion to the accompaniment of the ocean’s angry rhythm that seemed so symbolic of eternal hopelessness.

It was certainly an interesting experience!

Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather by Van Gogh

Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather by Vincent Van Gogh – Miklos Banffy’s visit with Leipnik occurred under similar skies

From Interwar To World War – Cynicism, Bitterness & Disillusionment
This was much more than an interesting personal experience. Leipnik can also be seen as a striking example of a feeling that was beginning to stir in the hearts of millions during the interwar period. Marked by a vile disillusionment with the peace process, a loathing of real and imagined foes, the attitude of Leipnik was shared – albeit to a less exaggerated degree – by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians. Leipnik is a bitter angry man who spews forth vitriol, has lost all reason, lacks self-awareness and seems to inhabit an alternate world. Could the same not be said of those purveyors of fascism during the years between the First and Second World Wars? At first, Hungary was left to vent its frustrations alone and in vain, much like Leipnik. Later Hungary discovered fellow travelers in Italy and Germany. Together they would share the dream of correcting what they believed to be outrageous historical injustices. It would not be until the late 1930’s that they were able to begin realizing their dreams of vindication by recovering the lost lands of Historic Hungary through a fatal alliance with Nazi Germany. It was this alliance which would have horrific consequences for Hungary.

The story of Leipnik, as told through the literary skill of Miklos Banffy, leaves a lasting impression on the reader. He is a tragically unforgettable character. Leipnik, like so many famous Hungarians went abroad to realize his ambitions. Tellingly he did not end up famous, only infamous. He was a complete failure, left to seethe in arrogant disillusionment. If it was not for Banffy stumbling upon him, Leipnik would be totally unknown. Their meeting was an accident of history, but the cynicism and bitterness displayed by Leipnik was no accident. These feelings were representative of an attitude that eventually helped lead Europe into another world war.

The Last Coronation – Funeral Rites for the Dual Monarchy

Matthias Church, atop Castle Hill in Budapest, is an architectural fantasy. With its diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyle covered spire there is scarcely a more stirring scene of eclectic grandeur in the whole of Europe. This beautiful building was reconstructed in the late 19th century to a rough approximation of its medieval self, with flourishes of neo-Gothicism added to recreate it for the modern age. The church has been the site of numerous historical events, including the wedding of famed Hungarian Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus to Queen Beatrix of Naples. It was also the scene of multiple coronations. The last of these, less than one hundred years ago, was the setting for one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of Hungary.  It was at this event, what turned out to the last coronation of a Habsburg Emperor, that the fate of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foretold by an unanticipated event that took place in the church. This event exposed the crumbling decay that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.

Matthias Church - site of the last coronation

Matthias Church – site of the last coronation

“Creating Reality From Imagination” – Crowning A Final King
In the latter part of 1916, Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which he was at the helm of the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was hastily arranged. The demands of a raging war were set aside for the sake of tradition. This was imperative since the tottering monarchy needed to adhere to the trappings of power in order to give the appearance of strength and unity. The coronation in Budapest was set for the next to last day in December of 1916. Franz Josef’s great nephew, the man who would become Emperor Charles I was to ascend the throne.

The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in pageantry and protocol. Soon after it began, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this happened, the audience – made up of the crème de la crème of the aristocracy – was to exit the church. We have an astonishing first-hand account of what happened next from Miklos Banffy, the director of the State Theatres, who was charged with organizing the ceremony. As Banffy watched, “the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left of the church…They came down, one by one or in pairs, down the steps from the gallery and into the center aisle, all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels and glittering like figures from ancient times suddenly come alive again, creating reality from imagination. As they moved slowly out of the church in procession they were accompanied by the softest of organ music as if the disappearance of all this beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.”

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

“The Sad, Grey Tragedy of War” – The Knights of the Golden Spur
With the church now empty, it seemed just a matter of moments before the king and queen would exit as well. Yet protocol took precedence as suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur arrived to receive accolades from the newly crowned king. They were a seen of tragic poignancy at the ceremony:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

A greater contrast of scenes occurring in just a matter of moments could hardly have been imagined. Majesty met a deathly sense of duty. Splendor was overcome by decay and decline. The entire ceremony can be interpreted as a metaphor of life imitating art. In this case, art foreshadowed a tragedy of historic proportions. In the church that day the ladies represented what the empire had been, the alluring glamour and beauty of the aristocracy. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the stark reality of what the empire had become: broken, feeble, on its last legs and fading fast. The future was to be a very different place. After what these men – who were just a few of many millions – had endured nothing could or would ever be the same. The empire was disintegrating at the front. The broken soldiers were the physical embodiment of a mortally wounded monarchy.  The end was near.

Where the Dual Monarchy died - Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

Where the Dual Monarchy died – Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

The Verge of Oblivion – The Dual Monarchy On Its Knees
Studying this scene, it is much easier to understand what happened in the months and years that followed. The shimmering power of the monarchy had all but disappeared amid the dark shadows of war. It was a relic of a bygone era which had come to an end far from the neo-Gothic splendor of the Matthias Church. Belief in the monarchy had been buried in muddy and bloody trenches, drowned in the marshlands of Galicia and blown to bits high in the Italian Alps. The survivors were barely better off than the dead. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the last, stumbling vestige of a tradition that was on the verge of oblivion.  Soon the monarchy, the empire and the Kingdom of Hungary would cease to exist. Chaos would soon reign supreme.

What History Did To Hungary – The Phoenix Land (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

“The true use of history is not external, but internal. Not what you can do with history, but what history does to you” – Jacques Barzin

Hungarians in exile, Hungarians abroad, this has been a reoccurring theme for the past one hundred sixty years in Hungary. Whether it was because of failed revolutions (1848 and 1956), seeking better opportunities abroad (the late 19th/early 20th century & 21st century since EU membership) or fleeing radical ideologies and chaotic political upheaval (post World War I, World War II and the immediate years thereafter), on numerous occasions Hungarians have found themselves far, far away from their homeland. Despite this dislocation or perhaps because of it, they have used their creative talents to make a name for themselves. Hungarians provided much of the brain power behind the atomic bomb, the moon and mars rover, supersonic flight, jet propulsion, full length motion pictures and Microsoft Office to name just a few of their innovations. Even personalities as famous and disparate as Joseph Pulitzer and Harry Houdini were both originally from Hungary.

This seems almost too good to be true. It makes one wonder what would have occurred if all those famous Hungarians who went abroad could have stayed in their homeland, what heights might the country have attained? Hungarians are justly proud of their fellow countrymen’s accomplishments abroad. Conversely, there is rarely any discussion of Hungarians who returned to their homeland. This is something which is rarely spoken of, if ever. In today’s installment of A Trip Around My Bookshelf, we will learn about some Hungarians who returned from abroad, the near abroad of Transylvania in the first case and the trenches of World War I in the second. In both of these cases the central figure is Miklos Banffy, as both subject and recorder of changes  that would roil 20th century Hungary.

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

One Hungarian who was cut asunder from the nation and also went abroad for a time was the author Miklos Banffy (1873 – 1950). Banffy left his homeland for a short time and was something of an internal exile through no fault of his own, since Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace which followed World War I. Many people who are quite knowledgable about Hungary have never heard of Banffy, that is such a shame. Miklos Banffy was born into one of the pre-eminent aristocratic families in Transylvania, back when it was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. He was an incredibly talented writer, artist and politician. He wrote one of the great works of period literature, what is known as The Transylvania Trilogy, a three volume set of novels under the stark titles, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Counted and They Were Divided. The books follow the life and times of Transylvanian aristocracy from the turn of the 20th century up to the outbreak of the First World War. We get to know not only a cast of characters whose tragic excesses, love affairs and  aristocratic traditions are the essence of great drama, but also a people who are inextricably attached to a land which seems to almost be a physical part of them. Fortunately one of Banffy’s descendants saw fit to have these books translated into English. The trilogy is now readily available for purchase in the English language sections of good Hungarian bookstores, in addition to online.

Somewhat hidden in the shadow of this towering literary achievement is Banffy’s other book, The Phoenix Land. The name metaphorically implies the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, just as Hungary rose from the calamity of World War I, the chaotic aftermath of revolution and counter-revolution which followed and the disastrous Treaty Of Trianon whereby Hungary lost over two-thirds of its land and population, including Transylvania. Banffy was named the foreign minister for a time following the war. He offers insight into the negotiations and political machinations that took place in order to keep the country from totally falling apart. These memoirs deal with the interwar years, as the Hungarians attempt to deal with the shocking reality of defeat, occupation and dismemberment. This is not just a memoir of a man, it is also the memoir of a national trauma. Banffy is both insider and outsider. He no longer has his country, but his country will forever have him. The same could be said of the relationship between Hungary and Transylvania, even today. The exile of over a million ethnic Hungarians is all the more painful because of the mother nation’s close proximity. Banffy and his fellow Transylvanians do not have an ocean or a continent separating them from their mother country, they only have an invisible political barrier, a border. It is a scar that all Hungarians live with. The Phoenix Land is much more an interpretation of mental rather than physical scars.

The Last Coronation - Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The Last Coronation – Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The only part of the book which does not deal with the interwar years may also be its best. Banffy describes with eloquence and melancholy what became the final coronation of a Habsburg monarch.  In late 1916, long time Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which saw him lead the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was quickly arranged. This event would crown his great nephew Charles as the new monarch.  He would become King Charles IV (Emperor Charles I). Banffy was in charge of planning, organizing and staging the coronation which took place at the Matyas Church in Budapest on December 30, 1916.

It was at this final coronation that the coming fate of the Kingdom of Hungary was foretold by an unanticipated scene, one that is hardly known, yet symbolic of the state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. In this historic moment we find Hungarians, specifically the Knights of the Golden Spur returning from the trenches in order to be present at the coronation. The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition and protocol. Soon after it begins, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this though, with the church now empty, protocol took precedence. Suddenly the ghostly Knights of the Golden Spur appeared to receive accolades from the newly crowned king.  Banffy describes what happened next:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.”

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

The entire ceremony was a metaphor, but not for traditional imperial principles. Instead, the glittering coronation represented what the Kingdom of Hungary had been. Then suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur appear and represent the stark reality of what the Kingdom has become: broken, feeble, on its last legs. The end is near. The future will be a different place, where nothing will ever be the same. The resplendent beauty of the empire is now transitory, fading fast. The Dual Monarchy is disintegrating at the front and the soldier’s scars, bear witness to the mortal wound that the Habsburg Empire has suffered. Reading this, it is much easier to understand what happened in the years that followed. The monarchy dissolved, Hungary’s best and brightest had been killed or irreparably wounded at the front fighting for an ideal that had been vanquished. This was foretold by those Knights of the Golden Spur who had returned to the homeland. Perhaps we should now acknowledge the ultimate Hungarian exile of the 20th century, the monarchy. It left, never to return and nothing has been the same since then. Ironically, it was returnees, the Knights of the Golden Spur and Miklos Banffy, who foretold the future and what was to come.