Uzon, March 2010
In an ice-cold castle I meet Zsigmond Mikes, a large, circumspect man, born in 1977 in Oradea, the Romanian town not far from the Hungarian border, who now spends part of his time in Germany and the rest in Transylvania. He’s a second cousin of Katalin Roy Chowdhury-Mikes, mother of Gergely and Sándor. He and his family have managed to reclaim this Transylvanian castle and land, but unlike Farkas Bánffy, Gergely and Sándor Roy Chowdhury and Tibor Kálnoky, all of whom have breathed new life into their family properties, he remains uncertain what to do with the estate returned to him.
I have a theory about this, a fairly obvious one. The first restitutions of castles and large areas of forest to be implemented involved families that had fled abroad. They have more faith in the observation of official rules than people who grew up in Romania under dictatorship. They fight more determinedly for their rights under law, they have more resources and better lawyers to pursue their claims, and they are less susceptible to intimidation or to the little jokes played by Romanian mayors and officials. People who grew up in an authoritarian state often have a more passive attitude to government than their relatives from the free West.
That is the practical explanation, but there is a psychological side too. The older generation (those aged over seventy-five) and the younger generation (under forty-five) are the most positive. The elderly have pleasant childhood memories; the young still have dreams for the future. The generation in between, the lost generation of communism, is too young to remember pre-communist times and too old to adjust to a new era. For the truly old, those who remember life in a castle, coming to terms with the current state of the family home is often difficult, but they can tell their grandchildren stories that they have kept from their own children. The grandchildren usually know more about the past, both before and under communism, than their parents.
In the three cases in which castles or country estates were sold, it was the lost generation that made the decision, people who mainly remember the communist era and seem relieved to be able to free themselves from the ghosts of the past. I can understand that. I recently went with Ilona to visit Margitmajor, the estate in the south of Hungary where her grandmother grew up. After expropriation it became an old people’s home. The once elegant country house has been permanently defaced by the addition of an extra storey. The director gave us a very thorough tour; she walked into all the rooms without knocking, showing us the elderly ladies lying there six to a room. I felt like a voyeur in an ossuary. The floors were covered with gleaming tiles. The house smelt of lard and was permeated by death. I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.
Zsigmond’s life story and his explanation as to why he is not sure whether he wants to live in Transylvania go some way towards endorsing my theory while at the same time contradicting it. He tells me: ‘As a child I watched a man flee into our block of flats. I was home alone; I could hear footfall in the stairwell. The man was in a panic. He had a pack of Kent cigarettes that he hid in the tiled stove. Two policemen appeared on the stairs and they beat the man mercilessly with sticks. I watched through a crack in the door. I was five years old. They didn’t stop, just kept on thrashing the man, who was on the ground. It made me deeply fearful of the police. On the way to school I had to pass police officers. If I crossed the street at the wrong place the transgression would be noted in my school file. We lived in an atmosphere of aggression and fear.
‘I often went to visit my grandmother. I loved the atmosphere in her flat. I felt accepted there, not to say loved. She was deeply religious, but not in a mindless way; she continued to think for herself. She didn’t go to church, but she was convinced that her redemption would come from God. She prayed a lot. For the final ten years of her life she was blind. She was always ready to talk about her childhood, which had been fantastic. Her memory for details and for the way people behaved was extremely vivid. At the age of twelve she moved to Aranyosgerend. That house was inherited through the female line and over the years it had been owned by the Keménys, the Klebensbergs, the Wesselényis and the Bánffys. My grandmother thought it would be hers one day. Life in that house was tough; her mother made all her daughters work hard, from morning to night. They had to cook and clean. The only thing they didn’t have to do was the washing up. It was the period between the two world wars. They no longer had large estates and they couldn’t afford many staff.’
The house we’re in now was used for sixty years as the headquarters of a state farm. It’s badly in need of repair. Rain and snow come straight through the roof. The lawn has been paved over and concrete blocks of flats have been built in the grounds. Only a few of the rooms are furnished, with wornout Eastern Bloc furniture, and just one room in the immense building is heated, by a tiled stove that dates from socialist times. Sitting in that room, I listen to stories of how Zsigmond’s grandmother kept the family alive by straightening bent nails in a crate workshop and brushing the dirt off vegetable boxes.
The only thing in the enormous house that points to a past of elegance and grandeur is an oil painting in the hall, showing dozens of slender horses in a tall pine forest, jumping over fallen tree trunks or galloping with flowing manes. They are the horses bred a century ago on the Zabola estate of Ármin Mikes. The painting has a warm reddish glow. At the end of the First World War, Zsigmond’s great-greatgrandfather rode to Hungary with the horses, two hundred of them, along with his daughters. It was a journey of hundreds of kilometres through mountains, valleys and forests, to keep both horses and daughters out of the hands of the advancing Romanian troops.
Zsigmond: ‘My grandmother was deported like everyone else on 3 March 1949. She ended up in Kolozsvár, in the Donát út, in a tiny house. My grandfather couldn’t work because of a bone disease; he was confined to bed. Grandmother had to do everything. The 1950s were a time of great poverty, but she was supremely happy in that little house. It was a one-hour walk to Kolozsvár. She later worked in a crate factory with people who swore and got drunk. If anyone behaved badly she’d never forget it. She was strict. On my eighteenth birthday she told me we were going to eat at five o’clock. I arrived an hour late. My grandmother was sitting at the table with one of my aunts, both of them waiting for us in their best clothes. The meal was on the table. I sat down. For five minutes there was absolute silence. Then my grandmother said: “Can you feel it?”
‘Her time was so different from mine. It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m in Romania or Germany. I thought I’d find a life for myself in Romania. Now I think things are different these days and I shouldn’t expect to find the country the way it was. Life in Transylvania was colourful, with the Saxons, the gypsies, the Széklers, the Romanians and Hungarians. You learnt to respect individuals, since there was no homogenous group. But I can’t find the secret here now. I need to look for it in my grandmother’s soul; maybe I’ll find it there. All the values she clung to were imparted to her in her youth. There were high expectations. Great demands were made. You had to behave properly and acquire knowledge, as well as being punctual and having manners and a sense of humour. There was a humanist tradition too. Those expectations of people, far higher in every respect, are of no interest to today’s society, especially in the sense of what it all added up to. It’s as if people were more complete in those days.
‘I’ve changed. Transylvania as an idea is no longer so important to me. Fifteen years ago I thought Transylvania was so beautiful and so special, so close to my soul, that I couldn’t do anything but live here in the hope that the family property would be returned. Now we’re all here because we’ve got something back, except for Tibor Kálnoky. He’s created something; he was here before anything at all was returned to him. It’s a mistake to think that possessions amount to a reason to exist. Now I can see that in my living conditions and my happiness I’m not dependent on property but on human relationships. My grandmother’s Transylvania has gone. That atmosphere and tradition, the values and the multi-ethnic composition of the population have all gone. I’m afraid this place will produce the same people as Hungary, and that therefore we can’t expect a better life. Here too, more and more people are allowing themselves to be driven by materialism. They have less time for each other. They increasingly devote themselves to earning money. Fortunately in the villages there are still people who aren’t in a hurry. People should be at the centre of life. I want to be surrounded by people with plenty of time. If there’s no time for pointless things, then life won’t be any better here than in Tokyo or New York.’
Jaap Scholten speaks about Comrade Baron at the First Transylvanian Book Festival in Biertan, Romania, on 8 September.
See www.transylvanianbookfestival.co.uk for details.
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. 1’) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).