Comrade Baron: A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Budapest: Helena History Press, 2016
I started reading this book filled both with excitement and dread. The former because I am Transylvanian, the latter because I was suspicious of an outsider writing about such a topic who could stay true to the reality of what happened and not worry about ruffling any historical or political feathers. Scholten’s captivating storytelling, however, put both concerns to rest.
The subject Scholten has chosen to tackle, the liquidation of the Transylvanian aristocracy by the Communists in the 1940s and 1950s, is not an easy one. It is barely known in the West and rarely mentioned in schools and homes even in the countries where it occurred, yet this great tragedy is a part of Transylvanian history and should not be forgotten.
Scholten gives us an overview of Transylvanian history as an introduction, but the story ultimately centres on the night of the 2nd and 3rd of March, 1949. On one night, the entire aristocracy, titled and untitled, was awoken by hordes of armed men led by the militia and the Securitate (the Romanian secret police), loaded onto trucks — babes, grandmothers and all — and driven far away to new “homes”, with their identity papers stamped with “DO”, meaning Domiciliu Obligatoriu — obligatory place of residence. It was soon recognized as a dramatic change, a permanent stamp not only on paper but on the souls of the Transylvanian aristocracy.
Their lives changed radically. It was more than “moving from a castle to a cellar,” as one of his interviewees puts it. They were dispossessed of everything: lands and properties, jewellery, gold, art collected over generations, even photos and personal items — treasured mementos of the past. Those who didn’t end up with long and heavy prison sentences, those who weren’t executed on made-up charges, were sent to work on the construction of the Danube — Black Sea Canal — the equivalent of slave labour. Other displaced aristocrats had to find means to support themselves and their families. This was made almost impossible as they were classified as “enemies of the state” and could earn money only by taking on the most menial jobs. Counts and countesses, barons and other nobles now worked as cleaners, chicken pluckers, warehouse clerks, ditch diggers, rodent eradicators, gravediggers, factory workers, seamstresses, and button painters. Some eventually managed to escape to the West.
Scholten has done his homework. He travelled extensively across Hungary and Romania and is not squeamish about Transylvanian mountain roads nor put off by the common feeling, when in some of the more remote villages, that you’ve been transported back in time. He visited prisons and ex-labour camps, as well as castles and manor houses — or at least what remains of them. He managed to interview a great number of the remaining Hungarian and Transylvanian aristocrats, most of them a humble shadow of what their families used to be.
The trepidation of having an outsider address this painful and sensitive topic wore off quickly, especially as we find out that he is married to a Hungarian, a descendant of one of the Transylvanian aristocratic families. In fact, he writes in such a loving and candid manner that the book is hard to put down. Scholten manages to roll together “the good, the bad, and the ugly” and present it in a way that will leave indelible marks on the reader’s heart.
There are idyllic accounts of Nicolai, one family’s pet bear, on whom little countess Erzsébet T. used to take naps and read her books; of family gatherings and hunting parties; of grand balls and dancing into to early hours of the morning; of secret loves, honour, and duties of the nobles to their families and their people. Though they lived in a very class-conscious society, “in Transylvania there was solidarity between the people and the aristocracy,” states one interviewee. The aristocracy played a crucial role in the propagation of culture in both countries. They founded universities, theatres, libraries, and museums and took up the patronage of new artists. They travelled and studied in Western European universities, bringing back new ideas.
These were the privileges of the blue-blooded one might want to envy, but with some exceptions, most Transylvanian aristocrats used their newly acquired knowledge to better the land they called home.
When in 1947, “the bad” came along — the aristocracy was officially outlawed both in Romania and Hungary, most of them were not prepared for what was to come. Communism could not bear any rival authority, and so a long odyssey of persecution began: the aristocracy, the ones who dared to speak up, the clergy who didn’t want to submit to the new rules of the tyrants — all paid the price.
“The ugly” continued through the meticulously prepared nocturnal raids and mass deportations. The Communist Party became stronger and stronger as the power of the aristocracy and the church faded. Nobility, priests, members of the opposition parties were imprisoned and tortured in the most horrendous ways; their families were left to fend for themselves, their wives and daughters raped and made to beg for mercy.
Béla Bánffy, son of author Miklós Bánffy, shares with Scholten about his father and his own decades of hardship: “He taught us to keep our back straight. We bore the name of Bánffy, which conferred obligations. Even without any possessions we had a duty to behave with dignity. We had to do our work well and be honest under all circumstances.”
Scholten provides much detail in this book to give a realistic and thorough picture of what Communism was like in Hungary and Romania and how it impacted not only the immediate victims of the 1940s but the generations that followed. The story Scholten tells here is not only important for Transylvania, Hungary and Romania. As the memory of the victims of Communism fades and romantic images of Communist regimes take their place, it is crucial to recall its horrors so that they may not be repeated.
We can be grateful that Scholten has taken upon himself the task of unearthing the mostly hidden past of the 20th-century Hungarian nobility. By his own admission, “I fell in love with that whole great mess beyond the former Iron Curtain. I find it impossible to say whether it was simply because of [my wife] Ilona, a kind of Pavlovian reaction that led me to embrace the entire Eastern Bloc along with her, or whether I would have developed the same affection for the region even without our love.”
I am glad he met the love of his life, a descendant like me of Transylvanians, and fell also for my homeland, the beautiful and exuberant, tried and tested Transylvania. Reading Comrade Baron I laughed and cried, was angry and disgusted, rejoiced and was sad with the characters presented. Scholten opens a window on a segment of people who were made to forget their past, nearly forgotten by us, and who are vanishing slowly.