Gernyeszeg, September 2009
On the edge of Gernyeszeg stands a low house with a sign outside that reads, in large red letters,COUNTESS FASTFOOD. There’s nothing very aristocratic about the greasy sausages and potato soup, but perhaps the name is an attempt to make a connection with the Teleki counts. In Gernyeszeg they employed one of the best cooks of the Dual Monarchy, Mihály Brezsán, later taken on by Rudolf von Habsburg, the crown prince who shot himself in the head at Mayerling. The eighteenth-century baroque Teleki Palace described by Miklós Bánffy in his Transylvania trilogy under the name ‘Var-Siklod’ is in Gernyeszeg. It’s now a home for children suffering from tuberculosis or whose parents have problems such as alcohol or drug abuse. The castle has been given back to the family, including the home full of children. The family has not yet decided what to do with the castle.
Gábor Teleki is the only member of the Teleki family currently living in Romania, in Bucharest, but he is not the only heir. Born in 1968 and schooled in Kolozsvár, Gábor is one of the people I know from the Piaf Bar. He remembers a happy childhood in Romania. His grandfather Mihály was born and brought up in Gernyeszeg and had four children. He was taken away in 1949 and spent two years in labour camps at the Danube – Black Sea Canal. After he returned from the camps he worked in a garage and lived in a cellar with his four children.
Four men are standing at the gate to the park, talking in Hungarian. I greet them. No one stops me. The palace is clammy inside, dark and empty, like most institutions in Eastern Europe that rely on government funding. All around it are tall plane trees. A stone bridge crosses the moat. The water is so green with scummy algae that it looks as if you could walk straight across. The winding moat flows into a lake surrounded by baroque statues. Gábor’s grandfather was not allowed to swim in the lake, but he could always go down to the Maros, 200 metres away, where there was a bathing spot used by the family, with a jetty and a diving board.
The palace looks out on extensive grounds. The view includes an obelisk at the place where the Margit spring used to be, where all the water needed at the castle was fetched. The house was heated by tiled stoves and lit by paraffin lamps, with silver candelabra on the dining tables. The staff wore blue-and-yellow tunics with buttons bearing the family coat of arms, which was also displayed on the coach. The servants had lunch at twelve o’clock, the family at one. For the servants the bell rang once, for the family three times. In the dining room, where the Habsburg emperor once dined after the hunt, there are now long tables where gypsy children with big eyes sit eating potato soup from tin dishes. Above them hang the remains of three Murano chandeliers and the television in the corner is always turned on. In a year from now the children’s home will have to leave the castle. The Romanian government has not yet made any arrangements for the children.
The park at Gernyeszeg lies neglected. Empty plinths indicate where statues must once have stood. The statue of Juno is missing. Large sections of the moat are dry, its marshy bed overgrown with reeds and willows. No one has mown the grass. Paths have been trodden through the tall weeds in areas where the children walk, like tracks made by wildlife. At the far end of the park is a lawn with playground equipment. Close to the house are cow-pats – someone must have been given permission to keep his cows in the garden of a tuberculosis clinic. A fat dog lies asleep in front of the entrance.
On an earlier trip, in Koltó further north, near the place where the Lápos flows into the Szamos, I visited a more modest house owned by the Telekis. After it was returned to them by the Romanian government, the family donated it to the local community. It houses a school, a nursery for toddlers, the village library, the post office, a surgery for a doctor who visits once a week, the annual vaccination centre for children and pets, the village cinema and a small museum devoted to the Telekis.
The guide showed me a lime tree that was three hundred and twenty years old and told me in Hungarian that Ferenc Liszt and the writer Mór Jókai once came to stay. Sándor Petõfi, Hungary’s most famous poet, spent six weeks of his honeymoon in the house and it was there that he wrote ‘End of the September’. A little summerhouse with a memorial bench has been built in the park to commemorate him.
In the museum I was shown the Teleki coat of arms, copied by a local amateur painter. The first quarter features a squirrel, the second quarter a lion with a sword in its front right paw. In the centre of the shield, flanked by two lions and two eagles, a goat standing on its hind legs holds a fir branch. I’d seen a multitude of animals in the coats of arms of Transylvanian families: unicorns rampant, lions waving sabres, eagles with wings spread, wolves with geese in their jaws, bears with scimitars between their teeth, bulls with arrows through their noses and snakes with gold balls between their fangs. The one thing they had in common was that they were all dangerous-looking predators. This was the first coat of arms I’d come across with prey depicted on it. What was this storybook animal doing there? I asked my guide.
‘The goat with the fir branch symbolizes the attachment of the Teleki counts to Transylvania; the branch stands for the forests, the goat for the mountains,’ the guide explained. ‘The family was always both illustrious and hospitable. This house was built in the mid-eighteenth century by Mihály Teleki. János Teleki decided on his deathbed in 2008 that it would be given to the village, for use by the community, and a small museum would remain here.’
Between 1991 and 2005, in the run-up to its accession to the EU, Romania adopted more far-reaching restitution laws than most of its neighbours. In Hungary in the mid-1990s, anyone with documentary evidence that he or his forebears had been dispossessed was given special vouchers with which to buy land at auctions. You were allowed a maximum of five million forints’ worth of vouchers, or around 20,000 euro, depending how much property had been taken from the family. Some of my friends in Budapest still complain about this injustice. You could buy only land with the vouchers, not a town house, country house or castle. There was a lively trade in them. Smooth-talking Hungarians went to visit elderly people, bought their vouchers for a song and got their hands on large estates.
In contrast to Hungary, the Romanian restitution laws give all those who were dispossessed or whose families were dispossessed between 1946 and 1989 the right to reclaim property. More than 750,000 claims have been submitted: houses, gardens, agricultural land, forests, shops, offices, banks, businesses, palaces, castles. Returning property confiscated sixty years ago is an extraordinarily complex process. The new owners may since have renovated the property, demolished it, or sold it on.
The Romanian government has therefore set up a fund, the Fondul Proprietatea, to take charge of nationalized industries, airports and harbours, and to look into monies owed to Romania by reliable, creditworthy states such as Iraq and Zimbabwe. When a request for restitution cannot be honoured, for whatever reason, compensation takes the form of shares in the Fondul Proprietatea. Among the hundreds of thousands of claims are quite a few from the Hungarian aristocracy in Transylvania.
In 1996 Count István Mikó published a book called Vár állott, most kõhalom (Where a castle stood a mound of stones remains) about the fate of the Transylvanian nobles under communism. It includes a list of the fifty most important castles and palaces owned by the Transylvanian aristocracy in 1945. They belonged to a total of thirty families. I have visited ten of the houses on the list; three were in good condition, the rest in a bad way. The buildings are disintegrating rapidly, generally speaking, and there are hundreds of them. Until 1989 the majority housed schools, old people’s homes, orphanages or hospitals, or functioned as the offices of agricultural cooperatives or as army barracks. After the overthrow of communism, countless institutions of this type were closed down or no longer funded. The abandoned buildings were looted, the tiles removed from the roofs, the rafters sawn up for firewood and the bricks used to build new houses, garden walls or pigsties. The Romanian government has given every appearance of acquiescing in this destruction, secretly pleased that the cultural heritage left to remind people of the Hungarian presence in Transylvania is disappearing from the face of the earth. The crooks who run things in Bucharest certainly don’t care. Only where people of noble descent have succeeded in recovering family property has the destruction been stopped or curbed. As far as I can see, the following twelve aristocratic families alone have until now been successful, or partially successful, in their restitution claims: Apor, Bánffy, Béldi, Bethlen, Haller, Horváth-Tholdy, Jósika, Kálnoky, Kemény, Kendeffy, Mikes and Teleki.
András, a very distant relative of Ilona on the count’s side of the family, has claimed ownership of a renaissance castle that belonged to his Transylvanian grandmother. Ceausescu had taken it over as one of his hunting lodges. Nicolae never went there, which did not prevent Elena Ceausescu from refitting the interior to suit her own taste. András is now caught up in a bureaucratic battle with the Romanian authorities, determined to recover his ancestral property. I asked him what he was planning to do with the house.
András: ‘I’m like a dog running after a car, growling and barking. If the car stops there’s not much more I can do than piss on the tyres.’
András articulates clearly and unsentimentally the reality for most descendants: they feel an obligation to their forefathers to go after stolen family property, so that those who stole or were given it are prevented from holding on to it for good. But when they get it back there’s usually little they can do. Property, houses centuries old, can really only be renovated with foreign money, which means either the support of foreign funds and foundations or the help of families who have returned from abroad with large sums to invest. There is hardly any assistance available from the Romanian government.
Romanian Catalin Bogdan wrote an article on the subject several years ago for Magazine Istorie entitled ‘SOS Heritage!’. ‘But it’s not only the money that’s lacking,’ she wrote. ‘There’s also a certain lack of interest in relics that are not strictly speaking Romanian. There’s still a latent attitude of exclusion and indifference towards buildings that remind people of a time when the Transylvanian elite was largely non-Romanian. Perhaps the moment when the Romanian government puts money into the restoration of the former residences of noble Hungarian families, like the Bethlens, Bánffys or Mikós, will mark the point when a blinkered nationalistic mentality is truly on the retreat.’
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).