It is March of 2015 and my wife and I are in Budapest.
It is a cloudy, windy day and there is a distinct chill in the air. I am used to this weather as I have spent my whole life in the northeastern part of the United States including a four-year sentence in Syracuse, New York where they measure snow fall in feet. However, my wife is Brazilian, which in addition to providing her with inner and outer beauty and a sensational accent has also given her no tolerance for the cold. So we hurry down Szenchyi Street which borders the Danube and turn right just after the Four Seasons Hotel to get away from the steady breeze that seems to be funneling its way down the Danube that morning.
Had it been a milder day, I would have walked along the Danube to our destination: the Hungarian Parliament. Not even Johann Strauss was more enraptured of the river than I am at that point. This is partially due to the fact that I have been hearing about this river all of my life from my father, both in stories and in memories, and have never seen it except from an airplane or from a great distance. And, considering that I had now been in Vienna four times (soon to be 5) it seemed long overdue.
Another reason for my enchantment was my introduction to the river two days previously. I had been on a business trip to Berlin and had decided that since I was in the general neighborhood I would go to Budapest to see what I could see about the Crown of St. Stephens, which since my father’s death in July of 2012 and the mystery surrounding his involvement in its recovery, had been a constant companion in thought. My wife agreed to join me on this adventure, as a kindness to me. At this time of year she would have preferred sitting on a warm beach somewhere. As a reward for her tolerance of my obsession I had tried to make the trip as romantic as humanely possible.
The first part of my master plan of romanticizing this trip had been an overnight train ride from Berlin to Budapest. In my head, clearly of little functional use except for as a hat rack, I had envisioned a modern-day version of the Orient Express. I thought the sleeper compartment I had booked would be roomy enough for our beds and have a seating area suitable for casual sloth, and that a porter would be at our beck and call to handle all of our personal needs.
Needless to say, we should have flown.
Our romantic trip had begun with a full scale anti-immigration protest with massive amounts of police in full riot gear, in the Berlin Train station which had scared the living crap out of both us. When the train did arrive and we were directed to our compartment it turned out to be the size of a small walk in closet with barely enough room between the bunks and the wall for an adult to walk through. The bathroom was more of a toilet with a sprayer similar to what we have on our sinks in the United States. The beds were thin pads over metal which helped you feel every bump in the track and help awaken us when the train was halted for several hours in the middle of the night. The porter’s only attention to us was to show us our cabin and bring us a cold muffin and undrinkable coffee for breakfast.
The delay caused by our unscheduled stop meant that our train would not be going on to its ultimate destination the Munich Hauptbanhhof but stopping at another station and we would have to cab it from there. This was made more problematic as it had snowed overnight and we had to schlog our luggage through it to get the hack stand. We, of course missed our Munich connection, and had to wait for a slower train in a cold terminal with a pay bathroom.
Thankfully the train ride to Budapest from Munich, even though quite slow, was pleasant and modern. It allowed us to gaze out at beautiful vistas when we were not trying to make up from our lack of sleep the night before.
Needless to say I was not impressing my wife with my ability to plan a romantic getaway in Europe. We arrived in Budapest just as the sun was setting and the city alight in the gloaming.
This is where phase two of my “romantic plan” was to take place. I had realized, proving that the neurons in brain worked occasionally, that at the end of a long trip a 5 star hotel would be a balm to any bumps and bruises caused by our train journey. As a consequence, I had booked a room at the Intercontinental Hotel (specifying a river view) which was directly adjacent to the Danube and according to the reviews I read, had wonderful service.
The hotel did not disappoint me. It had a modern interior with a large central core with rooms surrounding it on each floor. The service was impeccable and after a painless check-in we were led to our room by the bellman who had taken the burden of our luggage away from us. The room was dark as we entered, the only light coming from the large wall to wall, ceiling to floor window at the far end of the room. It was the view that allowed me to crawl out from the doghouse of our trip and wipe away all of the frustrations and annoyances of our train trip.
Directly in front of us, on the far side of the Danube, in the last light of the day, illuminated by flood lights, was the Buda Castle. Home to the Hungarian Royalty since the 13th century it was not only breathtakingly beautiful but I thought that its visage boded well for a visit that was predicated by a search for information about the Hungarian Crowd.
In the foreground, the Chain Bridge, its towers flood lit and its suspension cables strung with lights making them resemble a string of pearls than chain. I did not learn until later that the bridge is an UNESCO world heritage site. Built in 1849 it was the first permanent bridge to span the Danube in Hungary. But that evening it didn’t matter as it seemed placed there only for our viewing pleasure.
And between the two, the Danube, black and serpentine, seemingly alive and sentient, flowed. On the river two freighters were passing each other. One heading north towards Vienna and beyond, the other following the current and heading south towards the Black Sea. Their wakes catching the light from the bridge and the Castle creating golden butterflies dancing across the surface.
It was an awesome view. It felt as if I was looking into the annals of history. Yet it was timeless… as if it was always going to be here. An oddly, despite that dichotomy, and being a stranger in a strange land, I felt completely at home.
Our dodge down side streets to avoid the wind coming off the river was largely successful. While there was still a bite to the late winter wind at least it was not exacerbated by funneled gusts. That changed when we emerged from Akademia Street onto to the broad plaza where the Hungarian Parliament is located. With nothing to block the breeze you actually had to lean into it to make any progress at all while walking. Needless to say we made our way quickly across the square to the south side of the huge Gothic Revival parliament building where the visitor center was located. This is a shame because the building is worth looking at.
At the visitor center, we sign up for an English language tour of the Parliament. I usually have very little patience for this type of tour. I know that tours of this type provide you with nothing but cotton candy information. Material that looks attractive but has no substance. Sound bites as opposed to full thoughts. But while additional information about the Crown and its recovery would be an added bonus the only reason I am here is to see the Crown I have been obsessing over for close to three years.
We buried my father on a sunny and hot July morning several days after his death. The cemetery, Woodlawn, was created during the gilded age, at a time when cemeteries were more than just repositories for the dead but parks where they living could spend time with their departed and is the final resting place for Herman Melville, Nellie Bly, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington to name just the few. The plot had been purchased by mother’s mother and her sister shortly after the death of their parent. Located in a small knoll surrounded by trees, it defined the word pastoral. There, my father would be joining my grandparents, Fred and Madeline Zeman, my great aunt Marguerite Cohen and her husband Louis, Great Aunt Dorothy Zeman and the original occupants Siegfried and Marie Arnold and was as pleasant a place as any to say our final good bye to Dad.
We had not hired a rabbi to run a religious service for my father’s burial. While he may not have minded it, it would have been an anathema to mother. Instead I was the de facto master of ceremonies. It was strictly a family affair. No friends or colleagues had been notified. Surrounding the small grave in which we were to place my father’s cremated remains were my mother, my brother David and his two adult daughters Joanna and Laura, my sister Marissa and her husband Mark. I had written out some remarks and printed copies of the mourners Kaddish for everyone. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what I said that morning. I know it was heartfelt because I recall crying throughout my remarks, unable to finish a sentence without some type of blubbering
I behaved terribly on the limousine ride back to my parents’ home. My brother had lashed out at me regarding the Facebook post I had written the morning of Pop’s death. He was upset because my nieces had found out through social media about Dad’s passing as opposed from learning it from him as would have been appropriate. He was correct in his criticism except that he had left out when informed that Dad’s departure was imminent and that he should make his way to Summit for a final good bye, he had chosen not to alter his schedule and promise to arrive the following day. He had said some terrible things to me and I had not left to imagination of what I thought of his invisibility during Dad’s illness and his death. He, as his nature, had tried to dictate the terms of what and how we should be doing things during the funeral and my grief and anger at him proved to be a bad combination and I spent a good part of the ride home exploding form that toxic mix. It embarrassed me and after apologizing to my mother I told herI needed a few minutes alone and retreated to my father’s study.
His office was on the second floor of their split level home. It wasn’t his original office in this house. While the kids were still in the home it was a smaller place on the first floor. But when the kids had left the home my father had moved to a room that had originally been my mother’s study and my mother had moved to what had been my sisters bedroom. This office was bigger with lots of room for bookshelves and a Stressless recliner and far better suited for his office. But it had his desk, the same one that I used to search surreptitiously as a kid, and familiar books on the shelves, and pictures on the wall. Most importantly it still smelled of him.
I thought I had come to my father’s office to be alone and perhaps distract myself from the pain I was feeling by distracting myself by doing my emails. But on subliminal level I had gravitated to this room to be with my Dad. Be surrounded by his things and perhaps, if I was very lucky, his presence.
I sat at the desk and opened my laptop and let it go through its warm up routine. While I waited I stared out the window into the sunny July afternoon and the deck my father had spent his last great day on and thought he would have urged me to go outside and enjoy the day. But I wasn’t in the mood to enjoy anything just then.
I tried to write a few emails but realized that I didn’t have any patience for them. They didn’t seem important and when I tried to read them, the words fell in a jumble and didn’t make any sense. I tried Facebook but everything seemed so very trivial. I considered posting something about my father’s burial and then decided against it. Not only did it seem to trivialize my father’s death but after the things my brother had said to me I was more than a little gun shy about posting anything about my father’s death on social media.
For a long time I just sat there at my father’s desk, computer open and doing nothing but staring out the window. I saw the Colorado Blue Spruce we had bought him one father’s day that had been small enough to fit into a shower and now stood 30 feet tall. I saw where he used to place his hammock between two trees so he could nap outside on sunny afternoons. I thought more about that final afternoon we had spent in that yard and how joyful he had been about spending time with his grandchildren. I can remember how pleased I had been for his joy but how I was also a little frustrated because I had wanted to ask him more questions about the Crown of St. Stephens and why it was so important that he felt it would help him get a delay in his draft date and eventually cause him to go to Europe on some mission I assumed to find it.
Ego can be a terrible enemy to understanding. In this case, since I didn’t know anything about the Crown of St. Stephens, I couldn’t imagine why it would be so important in the world. I was after all a fairly well educated person who enjoyed reading history books especially about the 2nd World War. But death, especially a death of a parent, has the ability to wear away at your ego and make you feel small and inconsequential…that you know no little if not nothing about how the universe works. So I humbled myself and turned to my computer to see if I could understand why this hunk of gold was seemed to be so important.
My first click of the mouse took me to the same Wikipedia entry I had viewed when my old man had first told me about The Crown of St. Stephens. It read
The Holy Crown of Hungary (Hungarian: Szent Korona, also known as the Crown of Saint Stephen) was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence; kings have been crowned with it since the twelfth century. The Crown was bound to the Lands of the Hungarian Crown (sometimes the Sacra Corona meant the Land, the Carpathian Basin, but it also meant the coronation body, too). No king of Hungary was regarded as having been truly legitimate without being crowned with it. In the history of Hungary, more than fifty kings were crowned with it, up to the last, Charles IV, in 1916 (the two kings who were not so crowned were John II Sigismund and Joseph II).
Similar to most encyclopedia entries, this was long fact and short on understanding. I grasped that it had been the crown had been used to crown Kings in Hungary for the past 50 generations and that a King was not considered legitimate unless so coronated. But why should the United States Army care enough to send someone after it. After all, Hungary was not a very large or important country and the crown had been without an owner, as Hungary had had not King, since 1916.
My curiosity unabated I decided that I needed to dive a little deeper and did a google search for “The Crown of St. Stephens.” It was an impressive enough result, over 2,500,000, that it made me wonder how it compared to other royal crowns and discovered, much to my surprise the Crown of St. Edward, the crown used to coronate British Kings, had 500,000 hits or fully 1/5 of the number of Hungarian Crown. Clearly, I was far more ignorant than I thought.
My toe clearly in the water, I stepped in a little deeper and read the first listing on the Google search which was an entry on the US’s Hungarian Embassy website. It recounted that the US Army had taken the crown into “protective custody” at the end of the war to prevent it from falling into the hands of Nazi’s or Russians. That President Jimmy Carter had controversially returned it to the Hungarian people in 1978 as a symbol of warming relations between the two countries. Clearly it was a press release version of the truth, few facts and a lot of spin, but even that sanitized view of provided a bit of insight. That is the Crown was important enough to the people of Hungary that people were still fighting over whether it should be returned to Hungary 30 years after the US had taken possession. In another words, the Crown had become a symbol of the cold war.
One entry would lead to another. Some would provide information that helped me understand a little more about the Holy Crown others would merely re-count what I had already uncovered and some were, as is the norm in Google searches, completely worthless. I got so lost in the research that what had started out as a whimsy to distract me had evolved into a full blown curiosity.
There was a knock at the door and my mother walked into the study and asked in a subdued voice “You okay? You have been up here for a while. “
“Fine. Best under the circumstances I guess.”
“Come on down and have some lunch.”
“I will be done in a second. Let me shut down my computer.”
As I shut down the computer I realized that I been in my father’s office for nearly two hours. The time had slipped away while trying to find out about a part of my father’s life he had tried to keep secret for nearly 70 years. I also realized that until I uncovered the story of my father and The Crown of St. Stephen’s that it would be like a pebble in my shoe.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that finding out about my father’s secret life in the army would be a way for me to mourn him. That discovering these secrets would keep my way of keeping my father alive help me understand him in ways that I hadn’t before his death.
We had a 20 minutes to wait for the tour and since the Hungarian government had graciously supplied us with a gift shop to wait in, we felt it our responsibility as good guests to peruse the merchandise. It didn’t take us long to realize that while there have been other there may have been other supporting characters in this nationalist emporium of all things Hungarian the clear star was the Crown. You could buy calendars, spoons, playing cards, towels, sweaters, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, special coins, paperweights, you name it with the Holy Crown imprinted on it. I wanted to buy much of it as research material but my wife being far more sensible than me, kept my purchases to just a few calendars and commemorative coins.
It didn’t surprise me at all when I paid for all of the objects in Hungarian Forints notes that had images of the Crown on it and that some of the coins returned to me also had images of it as well. The first book I read on the Crown “The Holy Crown of Hungary” by Anthony Endrey introduction read “The story of the Holy Crown is inseparable from the history of Hungary itself. Proper understanding of its importance of the Holy Crown to Hungarians and its focal position in the historic Hungarian constitution therefore requires that the reader be familiar with the general course of Hungarian history over the last 1000 years.”
Or as a 1934 article in the New York Times titled “A Crown Rules The Kingdom of Hungary” stated “The fact is that Hungary has never been ruled by a king, but by a crown. The crown is not merely a symbol of power—it is the synthesis of constitutional rule…(It) “living power figuring in everyday life” so much so that instead of verdicts in courts being in the name of the state they announced “in the name of the Holy Crown.”
I had struggled for a long time to find an analog in the United States. Something that a fleeing government might want to keep out of the hands of the enemy at all cost. An object that would help whomever the new government might be rule the people of our own country with unquestioned legitimacy.
I couldn’t find one for many reasons for a number of reasons.
Foremost among them is that we are a democracy. I know that as someone who has never known anything but a democracy it is hard to understand how a king or a crown can represent the state. To us, our Presidents come and go. The legitimacy of our government is based on elections and adherence to our core documents such as the constitution. We believe in ideas not objects. Even if our enemies captured our Constitution or any other of the symbols of our Union they could not rule because they had them because ideas cannot be captured.
But the Crown could be. Power could be obtained its capture and as I had learned, the Hungarian Government was well aware of its power and willing to go through great lengths to keep it out of the wrong hands.
Our tour guide is a tall, conservatively dressed woman in her early twenties. She speaks English with very little accent and seems delighted to be our host. After we have secured our belongings in the check in area, as we aren’t allowed to carry bags into the building, our tour begins by going up a labyrinth of back stair cases. Eventually, we make it into a grand hallway of marble, gilt and high vaulted ceilings. Here we pause and our tour guide begins he learned by rote speech about the Parliament almost verbatim from the Wikipedia entry about the building.
“ The Parliament Building is in the Gothic Revival style; it has a symmetrical façade and a central dome. The dome is Renaissance Revival architecture. Also from inside the parliament is symmetrical and thus has two absolutely identical parliament halls out of which one is used for the politics, the other one is used for guided tours. It is 268 m (879 ft) long and 123 m (404 ft) wide. Its interior includes 10 courtyards, 13 passenger and freight elevators, 27 gates, 29 staircases and 691 rooms (including more than 200 offices). With its height of 96 m (315 ft), it is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, along with Saint Stephen’s Basilica. The number 96 refers to the nation’s millennium, 1896, and the conquest of the later Kingdom of Hungary in 896.”
As we are led through the building, up elegant and broad staircases and into beautiful halls lined with statuary you can’t help but be impressed with the building. Its finishes, the stained glass, the plush rugs, and the immaculate upkeep remind me more a church than it does a parliament. We are told of how the building survived the war. Our guide goes into great detail about everything that she shows us. It seems to me that she is going into great detail about things that don’t matter to most. (E.g the rugs are all made from the wool of sheep that whose ancestors once gave wool to the Hapsburg ) But then again I am not big on tours and more importantly I am anxious to see the crown.
From my research I knew that by the fall of 1944, Hungary was in serious trouble. From the east, the Soviet army was advancing across the Hungarian plain. In the west, The US 5th and 7th Armys were advancing from the south. The 1st and 3rd Armies were steadily advancing across France and the low lands. Allied bombers were inflicting heavy damage on Budapest, other major cities and industrial centers. Through diplomatic channels the Allies were asking the Hungarians to lay down their arms and accept an armistice that would spare their country.
The Hungarians were ripe for this type of peace offer. They had never been incorporated into the Reich and had maintained their own government under the Regent Mikal Horothy. Despite pressure on them to commit troops to the Eastern Front they had been successful in maintaining their troops in support roles. On the final solution and the genocide of the Jews they had maintained an independent course despite the Regent’s and anti semitic sentiments. They had claimed that the Jews were necessary for the country but when German troops entered the country in early 1944, they capitulated and in the end 450,000 Jews, 70% of the total Jewish population had been murdered. Only two countries, the Ukraine and Poland massacred more Jews.
By October 1944, The Hungarian government was faced with a Siberian dilemma. Declare an armistice with the allies, hoping that the declaration would spare the country and its people the wrath of the Red Army, which had developed a reputation for pillaging and rape, and also perhaps more favorable terms at the wars conclusion.. But it would also certainly mean the hostile takeover of the government by the Arrow Cross Party (facist) as a puppet for the Nazis.
The other option was to commit to fighting an all-out war against the allies. While this would satisfy the Nazi’s and allow the Horothy government to maintain nominal control of the country, it would also mean a huge loss of life by Hungarian civilians and troops by the Red Army, and total destruction of the nation’s infrastructure by Allied Bombing. There would be no mercy at the peace table.
On October 15 the Hungarian government made its decision. It declared an armistice. Immediately, the German’s took action. Their troops captured Regent Horothy, blackmailed him into resigning his post and then spirited him away to Bavaria where he would be imprisoned for the rest of the war. The government was turned over to the Arrow Cross under the direction of Ferenc Szalasi and the war continued for Hungary.
The tour had now stopped in elegantly decorated hallway. Our guide tells us that we are about to enter the central hall of the Parliament where the Crown is kept. We are informed that taking pictures is prohibited. We are warned not to get to close to the regalia. That it is protected by soldiers armed with sabres whose only mission is to protect the Crown of St. Stephens and that they will not ask any questions if you get too close.
I smile to myself. Had my father been with me, I likely would have told him that this was to be the Crown Jewel of my trip to Hungary. I know he would have laughed or more likely groaned but for my sense of humor the two are on equivalent reaction. Instead I lean over and whisper the same witticism to my wife. She has no reaction which could be because English is not her native language or because she doesn’t want to encourage this type of behavior.