Leányfalu, June 1991
On our first trip together, in an old Peugeot, Ilona and I drove right across Eastern Europe, where euphoria at the collapse of dictatorships still hung like morning mist in the streets of the little towns. We set course for East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, taking the hill roads whenever we could. We felt like fugitives, Bonnie and Clyde, sheltering in forests. We had two destinations in mind: Leányfalu and Bucharest. In Leányfalu lived nagymami, Ilona’s Hungarian grandmother, and in Bucharest an uncle of mine, Coen Stork, who was the Dutch ambassador there. Other than that we went where the moon took us.
It was the start of summer and we drove with the roof down, even in the rain. We wore thick Russian army jackets. Of East Germany I mainly remember jolting over cobblestones. We slept in haystacks or on the ground in front of the Peugeot. One night our haystack was surrounded by police; someone had mistaken us for cigarette smugglers. Taking the narrowest of forest tracks, we passed an abandoned red-andwhite painted barrier in the middle of dense woodland and suddenly we were in Ilona’s fatherland.
Leányfalu lies on the Danube at the foot of the Pilis range, where the slopes are covered in thick ancient forest, about thirty kilometres north of Budapest. The Hungarian grandmother after whom Ilona is named must have been a resilient woman. When the communists seized the extensive family estates in the 1940s she said: ‘Well, now at least we no longer need to worry about the weather.’
The house was painted pale yellow, a shade with slightly less red pigment in it than the warm Habsburg yellow of all the government buildings in Austro-Hungary under the Dual Monarchy, as well as most of the Catholic churches, all the way from Slovenia to the far eastern border of Transylvania. It stood right at the edge of the forest. At the back was a narrow veranda with window boxes full of geraniums. The garden had an old apple tree in the middle and in one corner, as in practically every Hungarian village garden, a nut tree to keep away flies and mosquitoes. Ilona’s grandmother welcomed us with open arms.
The interior was hung with family photographs and portraits. There were black-and-white pictures of proud men in díszmagyar, the ceremonial dress of the Hungarian nobleman – more ostentatious than the garb of a cancan dancer at the Moulin Rouge with a great fan of ostrich feathers in her piled-up hair. The grandmother’s wedding photo showed her dressed in white with a long veil. The splendid díszmagyar worn by the bridegroom was reason alone to want to marry him. Between them stood a priest, a head shorter, in a habit. Ilona’s grandfather’s left hand rested on the family sword, a scimitar seized from an Ottoman by her ancestor Miklós I at the liberation of Buda in 1686. It was in that period that her family received its patent of nobility. In the early eighteenth century one descendant, József, became treasurer to the last Polish king, Stanislaus Lescinsky, who was later exiled to France and lived in Chambord Castle on the Loire. Another relative moved to France and founded the French branch of the family.
My first encounter with the rich history of this part of Europe was in that house, with Ilona’s grandmother’s stories and the photographs and paintings on the walls. They included a large print of a mounted hunting party, showing nagymami’s forebears, the Dõrys, who were raised to the peerage in the fourteenth century, making them part of the ancient Hungarian nobility. The print dates from 1863 and it portrays the family’s hegemony and power. Young and old radiate a sense that it’s utterly natural for them to be on horseback, that theirs is the ruling class. That’s simply how the world was. Elegant women sit side-saddle in long black skirts; children on ponies, dressed in dark jackets, look like little Lord Fauntleroys; the men have impressive beards. They all sit straight-backed on their mounts, the pride and discipline of generations in their genes. In the background, one of the Dõrys looks relaxed in the saddle, smoking a fat cigar. As a group they exude unshakable confidence.
One photograph on the wall of nagymami’s house showed the family seventy years later, in 1933. Standing on the grass, with a hedge for a backdrop, the men wear high boots with tassels, fur hats with plumes of white egret feathers, dolmans with gold buckles and fur-trimmed pelisses, and in their hands or hanging from their belts are curved swords inlaid with jewels and mother of pearl. They were tall men, but despite their superb attire, despite the understated joy of a father surrounded by his sons and the pride of the brothers standing shoulder to shoulder in invincible alliance, the photograph has a sense of futility about it, as if they’re aware they inhabit a world that is on the point of vanishing.
Ilona and I drank gin with Ilona’s grandmother from small crystal glasses. With cheerful self-mockery she described her childhood, her life, her family, but she said not a word about the period after the Second World War. She described how one of her ancestors once went to retrieve a runaway bride from his father-in-law’s estate with his own hussars – every nobleman was obliged to provide a certain number of men in time of war, so practically every country estate had its own private army – and how one of her husband’s brothers emigrated to America by ship with nothing more than a small suitcase containing a dinner jacket, for which he had little use since he was forced to make his living as a dockworker and gold digger.
There, 1,400 kilometres from the Dutch border, I found myself in a fairytale land, in a family with a grandmother who told me under the apple tree about her brother-in-law, brother to Ilona’s grandfather, who had always said he did not want to be laid to rest in the clammy family crypt but in the ground next to the family chapel near the Danube, so that he ‘could hear the geese flying over’. At the hour of his burial, just as his coffin was being lowered into the ground, a flight of geese passed honking over the family’s place of worship.
After 1939, Nagymami lived for four years with her young family in Kolozsvár, Transylvania, in the old Mikes Palace. They frequented the Kaszinó, the club for Hungarian aristocrats. When company was scarce they would invite gypsies from a restaurant or a bar, drum up some friends and dance until deep in the night. Ilona’s grandfather and his friends leased 40,000 hectares of hunting grounds in the Transylvanian highlands. In the autumn they hunted stags, in the winter bears and in spring capercaillies. Nagymami quietly told us that the years in Transylvania were the most beautiful and happiest of her life.
Meet the author
Jaap Scholten talks to Sociology and Social Anthropology professor Vlad Naumescu about Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy at Central European University, District V, Nádor u. 9 on Wednesday 29 May at 5.30pm. Entrance is free.
RSVP by Monday, 27 May, 5.00 p.m. to Lilla Nagy at email@example.com or Katalin Romhanyi at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tel.: (+36 -1) 327 3821.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 11) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).