Vladimir Belyaev: The old castle (1952)
|This summary post, to be followed by a number of detailed ones, was written in preparation of our Czernowitz-Odessa tour in April 2013.|
To most Hungarians Kamenets-Podolsk is known for one thing: that in the summer of 1941, the Hungarian authorities – seizing the opportunity offered by the Galician territories since recently under German occupation – wanted to get rid of at least a part of the Jews in Hungary by relocating there, across the border those of them who could not prove their Hungarian citizenship. In reality, at Körösfő/Yasinya, the new-old Hungarian border station, they gave them over to the Germans, who within a short time executed them all, nearly 18 thousand, but their exact number is not known.
“And then strange times came: people had to prove their citizenship and nationality, submit birth certificates.
The ancestors of [the great author] Szomory had lived for at least two hundred years in Hungary, but he could not prove it, as he did not have a single official document…
He shrugged: “I do not prove it. Everyone knows who I am.” Emil, desperately: “Dezső, you will be deported, taken to Kamenets-Podolsk.” He did not get upset: “I have never been there anyway. Is it a nice city?”
Andor Kellér: Author in the tower (1958)
However, Kamenets-Podolsk, the city does not deserve to connect its name only with this tragedy. On the one hand, because although this was the official target of the deportations, a part of the mass murders took place already on the way here, above all in Buchach, some seventy kilometers from here, one of the intellectual centers of Galician Jews, the birthplace of Freud’s family, the Wiesenthals, and the first Nobel Prize winner Hebrew author Agnon. “And there lay yours”, told my guide, the old Polish lawyer, after the visit of the Jewish cemetery, pointing to the two mass graves, under which thousands of “stateless” Hungarian Jews lie, and whose very existence had to be concealed in the Soviet era. After all, even Belyaev, the author of our starting quote had to remember the tragedy by changing the details and omitting any reference to the Jews in 1952, when the show-trials against the “Zionist doctors” were in full preparation in the Soviet Union.
And on the other hand, because Kamenets-Podolsk – to give an answer to Dezső Szomory – is in fact a nice town. A beautiful town, with a great history, and rich in monuments. In addition, its history already before 1941 was in many ways entwined with Hungarian history.
The name of the city means “rock”, due to its quite amazing geographical location. It stands on the top of one single, huge, oval-shaped rock with a diameter of a thousand meters, whose vertical cliffs are almost completely flown around in a deep canyon by the Smotrych river, leaving only one narrow isthmus as an entrance to the rock. This isthmus is watched over by a beautiful medieval castle of seven towers, which was constantly reinforced for several centuries, until Stephen Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and King of Poland gave to it its today’s form of a fairy tale castle. His remembrance is preserved also by the other impressive surviving piece of the former fortress system, the seven-storey Báthory Tower, which stands firmly on the rock wall, at the end of the Little Armenian street, just a few minutes from the Polish Market.
In fact, Kamenyets-Podolsk was always a frontier town: this was the reason of its strength and weakness. At the clash point of the former Polish-Lithuanian kingdom and the Ottoman Empire, it had to hold up with its own walls the renewed Turkish attacks, if they managed to break through the fortress system along the Dniester, only forty kilometers to the south. This is why they built it out as the country’s strongest fortress. The city, the key of the Polish kingdom was repeatedly imperiled, and its conservation was always a serious problem for the current monarch, but the successfully repelled sieges also gave new force to the further fight, like in the 1680s, when King Jan Sobieski, after the liberation of the local castle line, with the same impulse went under Vienna to prevent the city from being occupied from the Turks, and to launch the definitive liberation of Hungary from the Ottoman rule.
Kamenets-Podolsk, at this time shortly (1672-1699) in Ottoman hands. Parisian engraving by Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720), with the indication of the important buildings and ethnic neighborhoods of the city, 1691
But the frontier situation was also the reason of the unique Armenian merchant city character of Kamenets-Podolsk. The Armenian merchants coming from the Ottoman empire through the “Eastern European Silk Road”, after crossing the Polish border, here stayed for the first time, and handed over their goods to the Armenians who had settled in the Polish empire, and who carried them forward to Lwów, Krakow and Breslau. This is how the still existing Armenian quarter of the city took shape, with the vast tower of the fortress-like Armenian Catholic Cathedral, and the smaller Armenian Monophysite church. In fact, Kamenets-Podolsk was the only city in Poland, where, in addition to the church of the Armenians coming to union with the Catholic church, another Armenian church could be erected for the followers of the original Armenian Monophysite confession, the merchants coming from the Ottoman Empire and soon returning there.
However, the luxurious palaces still standing in the Polish center of the city do not give the impression of any frontier zone. The city was quickly reached by the latest intellectual trends as well as the innovations of fashion or Warsaw performers. The Jewish quarter – which had terribly suffered under the Bohdan Khmelnytsky uprising and the subsequent invasions of the Tatars – was also open to any new ideas. Shortly after Shabbatai Tsvi’s messianic movement, it was Kamenets-Podolsk to became the center of the Frankism carrying on the Shabbatean teachings, whose representantives burnt the Talmud in the main square of the city in 1757. Here was born and maintained a luxurious residence Joseph Yozel Günzburg, one of the wealthiest Jewish bankers in 19th-century Russia, a noted philanthropist, and founder of the Society to Promote Jewish Culture. And here was also born Mendele Mocher Sforim, one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and the actor Zvee Scooler, the rabbi in the movie version of the Fiddler on the Roof.
In the city still stand next to each other the Polish, Ukrainian and Armenian market, the Catholic, Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Monophysite church and the synagogue, and even the minaret left by the short Turkish rule: the plateau of Kamenets is enmeshed by the labyrinth of the medieval towers, Renaissance palaces and charming Baroque streets erected by various nations. During our trip through Czernowitz to Odessa we will have to visit this fabulously beautiful town also in order to do it justice, and to know it from its attractive side instead of only the black reputation associated with the tragedy of 1941.