Georgia, minuto a minuto

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Las suelas de mis botas chinas se han rendido en la pedregosa carretera de montaña. «¿Dónde puedo comprar unos zapatos baratos por aquí cerca?» «¿Comprar?» Los ojos del taxista se abren como platos. Gira a la derecha, hacia el minúsculo taller de un remendón. Apenas quepo junto a su mesa y su perro chino. Resopla mientras hinca la lezna dando la vuelta a la suela. Me pide dos euros por media hora de trabajo y tira orgulloso del hilo, que no se romperá en mil años.

Gelati, Motsameta, monasterios medievales en la cordillera sobre Kutaisi, la tumba del rey David el Constructor, un maravilloso paisaje de montañas, podría decir esto a cada instante. La gente sube de los pueblos para la misa dominical. En el pequeño autobús nos acogen dos hermanas ruso-ucranianas-georgianas, acabada la misa nos invitan a un café en su dacha sobre el monasterio. Los niños del pueblo se agolpan a vernos, quedan a nuestro alrededor, dejan que les fotografiemos.

Kutaisi se despereza. Aquí son las ocho, en nuestros huesos las cinco. Habiendo dormido solo dos horas empezamos el ascenso de la montaña. En la mochila una botella de vino georgiano excelente, un regalo a todos los viajeros en el control de pasaportes (!). Lo beberemos en la cima a la salud de los nuestros futuros huéspedes.

Budapest está cubierta de nieve recién caída y hay placas de hielo en las calles mientras damos inicio a nuestro vuelo nocturno. En Kutaisi hace quince grados y los naranjos maduran en las fotos de los blogueros rusos. El trayecto dura seis horas, pero la vuelta será cosa de diez minutos. Intentaremos informar regularmente, tan pronto como dispongamos de Internet. Porque a la provincia de Tusheti, por ejemplo, en la frontera chechena, aún no llega ni la electricidad.

Georgia, minute by minute

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Ushguli, the top of the world. We ate for the last time at dawn, and in the afternoon, after the all-day tour it would be good to have something, but between the deserted fortresses we could only milk one of the skinny cows, because there is not a single store or restaurant. “Let’s go in a house here, if nothing else, they will give us bread and cheese”, proposes our jeep driver. The hostess immediately plants us at the kitchen table, she strips from the freshly risen dough a portion for three, and within minutes she puts in front of us a freshly baked khachapuri with meat. Her father-in-law, the former Soviet pilot now, at the age of seventy, teaches Russian language in the village school to the Svan kids. He pours us home-made Georgian brandy again and again, he says three times a solemn toast to the guests, to the family, and that there be no war in Donetsk, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In Mestia, the society of Polish-Georgian friendship runs their own pub in the main square, with Polish-Georgian bilingual signs. The Polish and Georgian members of the society are here only in the summer in the guise of tourists, and now, in the winter, you can find only Svans inside. Their dialect is different from Georgian, to the level of mutual incomprehensibility, but it exists only in a spoken form, so it is not included on the signs. The waitress is a Kurd of Yazidi religion, whose parents fled from Iraq to Kars in Turkey, and from there here, Svanetia. Instead of “yezidsky” she always says “yazichesky”, that is, ʻpagan’, thus in a Freudian way referring to why their sect has had to continually flee the orthodox Muslims, from the Midddle Ages to the new Middle Ages of ISIS. At the bar, a giant bearded man, the doctor on duty in the small hospital opposite, whose main passion is to demonstrate the relationship of the Svan and Sumerian languages. His other passion will be revealed only when he takes us around in his car to see the hotels proposed for a visit by our future group. In the car we listen to classical music with the best performers. “I have all the CDs of Jordi Savall”, he says in awe. “Of course, from the Russian pirate sites, for it would be impossible to get the original ones here.”

Logistical duties, choosing and visiting the hotels for our future group. The young proprietress of Gora Hotel startles me, saying “I’m also Hungarian”, as we drink a toast with chacha in the dining room, with the lights of the nighttime Kutaisi under us. “At least my grandfather was it. He fled here from the war.” “From which war?” “In forty-four. He was twenty-four then.” “Well, I do not think he fled then. He must have come with the Germans, either as a soldier, or as a prisoner of war.” “I do not know, we never talked about it in the family.”

The Stalin graffiti show well the ambivalent relationship to the recent past. In the popular “Putin is a dick!” stencils, the Russian president is a smaller matryoshka edition of the Soviet general secretary, while the portrait of the Generalissimus, carved with an experienced hand into the plaster in the Svanetian village of Kala, imperiously bears witness to the glorious era when the Georgians were massacred only by executioners from among themselves.

Kutaisi is always mentioned as the fifth oldest continuously inhabited European city, although the main proof for it is that at the mythical dawn of Greek history the Argonauts came here for the golden fleece, to Colchis, so it necessarily must have been inhabited. The only surviving relic of ancient Colchis is the beer Argo, which is black, like the Black Sea, from where Jason and his companions arrived here on the ship Argo, which appears on the label.

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In the former city center, between the decaying palaces, a passage from the turn of the century, with the label “Mon Plaisir” on its Art Nouveau gate. In the place of its former elegant shops, now there are pubs, eating houses, emergency flats, and voids with benches, scenes of the social life of teenagers. The other end of the passage was closed and at the same time opened to the other street with an arcade. The huge concrete spiral staircase, completely incompatible with the Neo-Renaissance arcades, was probably built under them in the seventies. It rises up from the ground with a sweeping dynamism like a giant drill, in order not to lead anywhere after the collision with the vault of the arcades.

Between the houses of the old city, a small courtyard, with some of the typical large statues of the recent past inside. I take photos between the grids. “What is this?” “A gallery. Our national artists”, explains a squat Georgian in black leather jacket chatting with his friend in front of the house. “Are they old?” “Well… not from today.” “But they surely did not stand here earlier?” “Well, they stood both here and elsewhere.” “In squares?” “Well, the Mayakovsky statue, for example, stood in the square in front of the council hall.” “Er… look, I am from Budapest, Hungary. There, after the change of regime, they collected all the Communist statues and put them into one museum. Is this like that?” “Of course!”, he shouts, pleased to see that I finally realized what it is all about.

In the Jewish street, beautiful houses built from carved stone, and two synagogues of ashlars. One of them is open for the Kutaisi Jews regularly visiting the city from Israel and founding joint ventures, but the other already closed down. In front of the latter, another beautiful stone-walled house, which, judging from the style, also belonged to the Jewish community. The old woman sitting in the doorway beckons to us. “Hebrews, from Israel?” she asks in Russian. “No, from Hungary and America”, we reply, at which she changes back to Georgian. “The back door is not closed, you can enter the synagogue. Have you seen also the great synagogue at the beginning of the street? And if you go ahead, there is the third synagogue, the Georgian one, dedicated to the Holy Archangels”, she points at the church standing on a cliff.

The Kutaisi Cathedral is enthroned on a high cliff above the Rioni river. It can be seen from all parts of the city, and it gives an extra connotation to the most unexpected views: the Jewish street, the slum, the inner courtyards of the old town running down to the river. One can climb up to it in twenty minutes in the steep little streets, but with a taxi it is just a few minutes away from the riverside. Every quarter or half hour a black taxi stops in front of it, a young couple gets out in their Sunday dress, just before they become engaged, and they solemnly go into the church, lighting thin honey-scented candles before the icons, asking for wisdom concerning the decision, and a blessing upon their relationship.

The soles of my Chinese boots fall off on the rocky mountain road. “Where can I buy cheap shoes here?” “Buy?” The taxi driver’s eyes widen at the thought of such a waste of money. He turns right up to a small shoe repair kiosk, I can hardly find room inside next to the cobbler and his Chinese dog. He snorts while he stabs around the two shoes with the awl. He asks two euros for thirty minutes of work, and he proudly stretches the thread which could not be torn in a thousand years.

Gelati, Motsameta, medieval monasteries in the mountains above Kutaisi. King David the Builder’s tomb, a wonderful mountain landscape, but I could write this every day. People come up from the villages for Sunday Mass. We get acquainted with two Russian-Ukrainian-Georgian sisters in the small bus, and after Mass they invite us for a coffee to their dacha above the monastery. The children of the village run together to see us, they stand around, they let themselves be photographed.

Kutaisi is waking up. Here, it is eight o’clock, in our minds it is only five. After just two hours of sleep we start up to the mountain. In our backpacks, a bottle of excellent Georgian wine, a gift to each passenger from the Georgian passport control (!) We will drink it on the peak to the health of all our future hosts.

Budapest is covered by freshly fallen snow, ice patches on the street, as we start off for our midnight flight. In Kutaisi, it is fifteen degrees Celsius, and the oranges blossom on the photos of the Russian bloggers. The way there is six hours, but back it will be only ten minutes. We will try to report regularly, as often as we get internet. Because in Tusheti province, for example, at the Chechen border, they have not even introduced electric power yet.

Pink postcards 14

On 30 [Jan 1915]
Name of the sender: Károly Timó, 1st Infantry Regiment, 5th Battalion
Address of the sender: Francis Joseph Barracks, Kecskemét, Reservespital Nr. 9, Door 88

Address: To the honored Miss Antónia Zajác
3rd district, Kis-Korona Street 52

Previous letters (gray dots):

Dukla Pass, 11 January 1915
Felsőhunkóc, 4 January 1915
Sztropkó, 31 December 1914
Budapest, 23 December 1914
Budapest, 21 December 1914
Budapest, 11 December 1914
Budapest, 2 December 1914
Budapest, 28 November 1914
Budapest, 27 November 1914
Budapest, 18 November 1914
Budapest, 27 October 1914
Debrecen, 25 September 1914
Szerencs, 28 August 1914
My dear son
I write you these few lines in the hope of getting an answer, because now I am near Pest, that is, to you. I was so annoyed that I was not sent to a hospital in Pest, but in Kecskemét, and I will stay here until I get fully recovered.
How do you feel, my son, are you healthy? and your mother and sisters? What’s the news about Feri?
I feel pretty good, in comparison to the wound.
My son, I asked for some money from home, because I cannot even buy cigarettes. In case they do not receive my postcard, tell them so for sure, because I am looking forward to it with the returning post.
What’s the news otherwise in Pest?
In about two weeks I will be back home. Be patient.

Kisses and embraces from your loving Károly
My greetings to the people in the workshop.

[So that was it. It was not even a month ago that, just recovered from the first wound, he was commanded back to the front. Now he was wounded a second time. Protected by the caul of his good luck, this time he avoided the fatal bullet for the second time.
The höfers only give a general and brief description of the battles in the Carpathians. We can only infer when and where he was wounded. His postcard written on 11 January makes no reference to an impending cataclysm.

Barracks and Reservespital No. 9.

Counting back, it was at least one day since he got to the temporary field hospital set up in the Francis Joseph Barracks of Kecskemét. That time it was necessary for a train to carry wounded soldiers from the Carpathians to the great plains. And then the field ambulance and filter station, where – if they observed the rules – he had to wait five days. This was the prescribed time to separate the soldiers carrying infectious diseases from the otherwise healthy wounded. It can thus be assumed, that he could consider himself a lucky victim of the first act of the first Carpathian campaign launched after the severe winter (23 Jan – 20 Feb 1915), the battle of Czeremcha-Nagycsertész.

Imre Révész: Two Hungarians, 1915

The starting position is roughly delineated in the repeatedly cited memorial book of the regiment:

“During the fights of 1914, the Austrian-Hungarian army was so much cut back, that at the beginning of 1915 there were only 270 thousand weapons employed on the whole Russian theater of war, while the Russians had 400 thousand people alone in the Carpathians fighting against our 180 thousand soldiers. This situation had to be reckoned with in time, because our armies could not resist for long to a three- or fourfold superior force in passive defense. Thus our military leadership intended to paralyze the Russian forces by way of a large-scale attack launched together with the Germans, so that the latter attacked the Russian right wing from the north in Eastern Prussia, while the Austrian-Hungarian forces the left wing from the south in the Carpathians. These measures led to the famous Masurian Campaign on the German side, and to the Carpathian Winter Campaign at our side.”

“…on 23 January at 7 a.m. our regiment with four battalions and three machine-gun squads develops for an offensive at the northern edge of Nagycsertész, according to the allocated fighting range, with a view of the occupation of altitude Nr. 651 possessed by the enemy…”

So that “…the kind reader could sufficiently appreciate the excellent performance of the soldiers of the 1st Regiment in the battles fought on the basis of the above dispositions, we have to know about the ground features,, that the whole area had a permanent increase of 30% up to the Russian positions, and in the allocated fighting range there was a sparse pine forest only on the right wing, while the rest of the field was completely open, covered only at some spots with a few shrubs. The whole area was covered with 50 cm high snow, and the cold sank to -28 °C.”

The attack launched on 23 January “…was launched again on the 24th, but it could advance only 150-200 meters, because the machine guns cannot support the advancing troops, as the coolers of the machine guns freeze in the great cold. The gunfire of the enemy causes a many losses on this day…

…In the night, only black coffee, mulled wine, bread and ammunition could be brought to the front line. In the night of the 25th, it was snowing was so much, that the whole front line of the regiment was covered in snow, and the dead – who could not be brought down because of heavy enemy gunfire – were spread over with a white shroud by the thick snow of the Carpathians.”]

When, in this bleak struggle, he was shot by a sniper of the Siberian Infantry Regiment, Károly Timó somehow survived. He was carried down the mountain, his wound was healed in the conditions of the camp, and then he was delivered by train to Kecskemét. As to how this occurred, civilians can get some morbid idea from the books on military surgery by József PROCHOV and Elemér PAULIKOVICS.

What does a bullet hole look like, if it goes in one side and comes out the other? Or when it goes through the skull?

In- and output openings

The same on a skull

Temporary tools for carrying the wounded

Hospital, barracks and screening station behind the front

Pincers for removing the bullet in the body

Amputation of limbs (Not to be studied at length by more sensitive readers!)

Ambulance wagon

For the time being, speculation and doubt remain about Károly’s condition. If his hopes come true, and he gets to Budapest, then at least these uncertainties will be dispersed, whatever lies in the future for his loved ones, friends and colleagues in Óbuda.]

Russian graves near Nagycsertész. From Kornél Divald’s report of 1915.

Next postcard: 10 February 1915

Windows of Lublin

This post was written for the newsletter of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association.
A violinist is playing silent music never-endingly, his eyes hanging on the score on the horizon. A young couple frozen in the pose of a wedding photo. A bridesmaid in a white dress, with flowers and a fashionable haircut. Two elegant couples in black dress in two neighboring windows, perhaps two brothers with their wives. A white-robed assistant at the window of a barber’s shop, his hand holding scissors, stopped forever in the moment of cutting. A round-faced woman smiling on the balcony above the ruins of the church of St. Catherine. A wide-eyed little girl wearing a hat with a band, holding a dachshund on her lap. Bruno Schulz’s twin shyly smiles at us, waiting for encouragement. A black-haired beauty with a lavish necklace, her dress coquettishly slipping off her shoulder. An old rabbi, with deep-set, twinkling eyes, his white beard emerges by threads against his black suit. They are watching a city that they have not seen for seventy years, which has not seen them for seventy years.

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From the hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants of Lublin, fifty thousand were Jews on the eve of the Second World War. Most of them lived outside the walls of the old town, in the maze of the large Jewish quarter lying between the Brama Grodzka, the Grodno Gate, and the royal castle, where they were exiled by the privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis of the urban bourgeoisie, received from the Polish kings in the 16th century. The gate, usually called Jewish Gate by those living inside the walls, framed, with a mediterranean arch, the sight of the picturesque, crowded and poor neighborhood. The frame still exists. Only the image it once framed has disappeared.

“When we came here in 1990”, says Witold Dambrowska, one of the Warsaw founders of the Teatr NN, “No Name Theater”, operating in the bastion of the Grodno Gate, “we did not know anything about Lublin’s Jewish past. We did not know that the gate looks out onto a Jewish Atlantis. That the large empty space lying outside the gate is all that is left to us from the Jewish town. That the concrete of the parking lot under the castle buries the memory of a dozen synagogues, hundreds of Jewish houses, and an entire Jewish community.”

The No Name Theater was given a name by a Jewish woman who visited the bastion shortly after the founding of the theater. “I am NN”, she said, and she told them about who lived there, and how they lived, in the tiny homes weaving through the bastion, before the German invaders on 16 March 1942 forced all the residents of the ghetto onto trucks, and blew up all of its buildings, except for the bastion.

The theater decided to take up this legacy which had come to them. First they had to assess what, exactly, it was. Through detailed research they sought to explore the history of each house in the Jewish neighborhood, and in several thousand hours of interviews, made with survivors and their former neighbors, everything that could be known about the former residents and their lives. The thick dossiers of the houses and interviews, like headstones, line the wall of the research room, on whose floor white lines indicate the walls that were once there and the disposition of pre-war rooms. Here the trail starts, it leads through the labyrinth of corridors and rooms, layered upon each other over several centuries, and lined with the photographs of the Jewish inhabitants of Lublin, to the other large room, where a large city model shows the former Jewish town. The interactive reconstruction was also published on the internet, where, proceeding from house to house, one can get to know every piece of information that has up to now been collected about the neighborhood and its residents.

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But the theater considers its task not only the revival and preservation of historical memory, but is also devoted to its sharing. They hold regular courses about the history of Jewish Lublin for the students of the city, as well as for the young people visiting them from all Poland and from abroad, and via street performances, they revive the past of the Jews in the city where they lived. On 16 March the students of the city schools read aloud the list of names of the deported, from morning till night, on the site of the ghetto, and after the fall of darkness no light, no lamp is lit, on that day in the city. Only one remains on, the single old street lamp that survives from the Jewish quarter, which shines day and night all the other days of the year in the memory of those killed.

And the disappeared long to be back where their memory is maintained. In the Renaissance main square of the old town, during the restoration of house number 4, a few years ago, a box was found containing two thousand seven hundred glass negatives, the photos of an unknown Jewish photographer of the inhabitants of the city from the 1920s and 1930s. The majority of the images are portraits of people, of whom not a single image was left. The negatives were received as a deposit by Teatr NN. And some of the portraits were enlarged life-size for the windows of the old town. The former citizens of Lublin moved back into their town. They look out from their former flats, at the table they sit, they take sips from our glasses,

Thank you

Tarnów. Uncle Bem’s grave between heaven and earth. The museum of Polish-Hungarian friendship. An old trading town between Krakow and Lwów, later the first station of the Galician railway: a Renaissance main square with wealthy merchant houses, a contiguous Art Nouveau palace row along the old town walls. A great Jewish past, a rich history, illustrious families, Hungarian connections, still standing synagogues, palaces, cemeteries. A gorgeous photo album on old Tarnów, with two hundred and fifty rarely seen pictures, mainly from private collections, with Polish and English parallel text. I have read it and scanned whatever I needed from it, and now I would give it away to the central library of Budapest, so that others could have access to it.

She’s turning it in her hands, like the border guard with the red-skinned passport of Mayakovsky. “I’ll take it in, I’ll ask about it.” After a while, she’s back. “They say, you should take it to the Polish institute, here they do not read in this language.” “But this is a photo album, the history of a city, with important and rare pictures. And look, there is the English parallel text on every page.” “Oh, really.” She struggles. “Leave it here, my boss is not in now, I should ask her whether we need it.” “But you will not throw it out, will you? Because then please give it back, I can give it away somewhere else.” “No, no. As to throwing it out, we won’t do that.” “Thank you.”

Silesia. Goethe’s Arcadia, the cultural hinterland of 19th-c. Berlin – “jeder zweite Berliner stammt aus Schlesien” –, the lost Transylvania of post-war Germany. Breslau/Wrocław, the disappeared city and the one that never was. Literature about Silesia, relaunched in the 90s after a long break, is summarized by the recent book by Hans-Dieter Rutsch, which gives an overview of the modern German reception of Silesia, from German Romanticism to the turn of the millennium. I buy it right after publication, I read it, and I take notes. Then I’d like to give it away.

At the loan desk of Berlin’s Staatliche Bibliothek they are grateful for the book, they say thanks, and it seems that they are really happy about it. And a few weeks later they send me a letter from the acquisition department of the library.