Traveling south from Poland, and crossing the Slovak border at Muszynka, the landscape changes in one blow, as if nature herself wanted it that the border would run on the ridge of the Carpathians, and so she painted the two sides in different colors, like on political maps. The ragged contours and hazy blue shades of the Polish mountains are replaced by softly curving mountainsides and strong, saturated colors, the silver of the large unbroken grain fields, the yellow of the canola fields dotted with red poppies, the green of the hayfields. Instead of the cloudy Polish sky, the contrast of the harsh white clouds and the bright blue sky. We’re home.

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Landscape without people

Typical Galician Polish landscape in the summer of 1936.

These frames are from the Yiddish-language film Jidl mit’n fidl (“A little Jew with a violin”, 1936, English title “A Castle in the Sky,” which can be seen here), made as a Polish-American cooproduction. The protagonists appearing in them are Molly Picon, Simcha Fostel, Leon Liebgold, and Max Bozyk. The film was directed by Joseph Green.

Jidl mit’n fidl: A Heimisher Sherl. Alicia Svigals.

The vegetation is exactly the same eighty years later, in August 2014, in the same place, the Belżec extermination camp, Galicia.

Tarnów tales 1. The Al Capone of Tarnów

This photograph, on which a Hasid from Tarnów proudly struts on his sidecar motorcycle, marks the end of an era for several reasons. First, the date of 1938, the last year of peace, after which nothing will ever be the same as it was. Second, the motorbike, and the clumsy hand that wrote the Latin letters, a hand which was used to another form of writing, from right to left, indicate that the traditional world, the closed world of the shtetls and Hasidic communities in any case, were already on the way to breaking up. And Marek Tomaszewski, the author of Tarnów. Żydowskie krajobrazy (Tarnów: Jewish landscapes, 2012) has also included this photo in the last chapter of the book, which says farewell to this vanished world.

In 2011 the Tarnów postcard and photo collector Marek Tomaszewski had already published a stunning book from the material of his collections: Tarnów: wędrówka w przeszłość z kartą pocztową (Tarnów: a journey into the past on the back of a postcard), from which we will quote later. However, he still had enough material left to compile a separate photo album on the Jews of Tarnów. The city, with its twenty-five thousand strong Jewish population, or 40% of the population, was the fourth largest Jewish town in Galicia, after Lemberg/Lwów, Krakow and Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankivsk). No wonder then, that after the disappearance of the owners of these albums, one could still collect so many photos, from which the two hundred and fifty pictures illustrating the album were selected. The four photos accompanying the foreword, Tomaszewski mentions, were for example purchased on the German e-bay just a few days before the book’s release.

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The photos are really impressive. Although their photographers are mostly unknown, many of them are worthy counterparts of Menachem Kipnis’, Alter Kacyzne’s or Roman Vishniac’s famous series. This also indicates how many more pictures may still be hiding depicting this world, which only twenty years ago was widely considered to have passed almost without a trace. And the book’s great merit is that, apart from the images, it also helps to revive this world with long texts. The Tarnów Jews that survived the destruction started to record and collect their remembrances in Israel since the late 1940s, and in 1954 they published them in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish; the latter under the title Tarnów. Egzystencja i zagłada żydowskiego miasta (Tarnów: Life and destruction of a Jewish town). These excerpts from the book come from this collection.

Corner of Wesklarska and Żydowska streets, looking towards the Pilzńenska Gate. Photo by K. Fusiarski, 1930s

The excerpts begin with the vivid description of the everyday Jewish life, the typical figures of the squares and streets; the coachmen, the barber, the restaurants, the porters. They present the festivities of the religious Hasids, the misery of the slums, the struggle of the workers for a better life. They report on how the twentieth century settled over the city, the destructive Russian occupation of 1914-1915, the bourgeois life between the two world wars. And then about 1 September 1939, the first day of the war, the German occupation, the establishment of the ghetto, the deportations. About escape, with Polish help. About survival.

Jewish man in Tarnów during the German occupation

It is such a rarity to have such rich visual material and together with detailed account of a Jewish town, that I consider it worthwhile to quote from it a number of stories over a few consecutive posts. The shtetl evoked in this way will help to form an image of the many other shtetls, from which no similar memories have survived. We start in medias res, and, leaving the description of the city’s everyday life to the next post, we first present the Al Capone of Tarnów, Idele Muc, on the basis of a report from Mordechai David Brandstetter, the great Tarnów master of Hebrew literature, as mediated by Jozef Hajman. The figure of Idele Muc shows that the sort of king of the Jewish underworld, like the Odessite Benya Krik, were not created or embellished merely by the fantasy of Isaac Babel, but they really existed, and formed a separate type, and they might have been present in many more cities, than only those from which we have a reports.

Jewish shops in the elegant Wałowa street. Many of the persons on the picture must have been Idele Muc’s clients

“Nowadays when I read about the safety of property and life in New York and Chicago, and when I hear talk about Al Capone, the king of the Chicago underground, I can remember, when I was still a boy, hearing the old folk talk about the Al Capone of Tarnów, who was, to put it mildly, the leader of Tarnów’s thieves seventy years ago. He was generally known by the nickname Idele Ganef [thief] or Idele Muc.

As a youth, Idele Muc had already been a pickpocket and thanks to his acuity became the leader of an organized gang of thieves. As he got old, he no longer actively practised this profession but taught it to young people. Thanks to his connections in the police force, when a member of his group was caught, Idele Muc could, in the majority of cases, just like the present day Al Capone, arrange for the release of the arrested man within a very short time.

In the event of a theft, the injured party would go to see Idele Muc. Initially, he would feign great surprise at being approached about such matters, but after a short exchange of words the injured party would pay him a sum of money and the stolen item would be covertly and quickly returned to its owner.

Idele Muc introduced a system which is now also used by Al Capone – in which, by paying an appropriate fee as protection money, the richer Jews were safe for some time from being robbed and burgled. Idele Muc, being a “man of honor”, usually fulfilled his obligations. But if he thought that the amount of the payment was too small in relation to the property under his protection, or if the “insured” delayed the “insurance payment”, another theft would quickly persuade the injured party that he should contact Idele Muc promptly.

He could have easily run a detective agency which would have become very popular with the residents. Thanks to a well-organized and efficient network of spies and thieves at his disposal, he knew the exact quantity and nature of the goods received and who had received them, how the recipient’s home was run, the layout of the rooms in the apartment, etc. And, above all, whether the amount of the “insurance fee” was fair to him.

Brandstaetter [i.e. the writer Mordecai David Brandstaetter] got married while he was still very young (he wasn’t more than 17 at the time) to the daughter of a very respected and wealthy local tanner, Abraham David; he then became an employee of his father-in-law. Abraham David was ʻprotected’ by Idele Muc. Despite that fact, one night two tanned sheepskins were stolen from a locked shed in his well-fenced yard. He had no choice but to call for Idele Muc and have a discussion with him.

Because Abraham David was a wealthy and respected manufacturer of tanned skins, Idele Muc accepted the invitation and visited Abraham David in person. The latter gave him a warm welcome, invited him to sit at the table where, apart from the host’s wife, Mrs. Goldele, Brandstaetter sat with his wife. The tanner complained to his guest about the theft that had taken place the previous night. Idele Muc was very sympathetic: “There’s no way of dealing with those thieves. Their insolence is beyond belief,” he said. The tanner asked him, in his capacity as an experienced and wise man, for advice, hinting that he was prepared to pay for the return of the stolen goods, which, incidentally, did not belong to him, but to a client of his. Idele Muc, in turn, complained about the present hard times and stated the amount of money that would be needed to “compensate” the thieves for the returned goods. Idele Muc also added that if any members of the household heard suspicious noises caused by some object falling down during the night, they should not be alarmed or curious about who was causing the commotion, because the consequences could be unpleasant for any inquisitive person.

As a sign that the negotiations were over, the host ordered that good vodka and sweet cake be served to the mutual agreement and satisfaction of all. Clinking glasses, Idele Muc drank the health of the host, the hostess, and, out of politeness, also that of his young son-in-law – the future gem of Hebrew literature. During the conversation, Brandstaetter asked the guest how it was possible to commit a theft when the fence was so high and protected with wire, and how one could cope with the solid lock on the shed. Idele Muc was very angered by the young man’s naive question and, as he was slightly under the influence of vodka, he turned to his host and said: “It’s insolent of the young man to ask questions like that. I’ve been a thief for several dozen years and, believe me, it’s hard and exhausting work! And this inquisitive young man here wants me to offhandedly tell him how these things are done…” The host reassured his guest by putting the unfortunate question down to his son-in-law’s young age. Having drunk one more glass, Idele Muc, feeling reassured, left the tanner’s hospitable home.

Later that night the sound of an object falling to the floor could be heard in the hall in David’s house. The next day David recognized the skins that had been stolen a few days before, which were returned in the same condition as they were before.”

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The Forteczna street in the Jewish neighborhood, 1930s

Paradise lost

…которую мы потеряли… – “…that which we have lost”. This Russian idiom, used with preference, for example, in the title of TV shows and retro guides on the historical Moscow destroyed during Socialism, has such a tragic and nostalgic overtone, which should be translated using adjectives such as ʻvanished’, ʻperished’, or ʻgone’. Еда, которую мы потеряли. “The food we do not have any more.” Under this title, there appeared today a great illustrated report in the Russian Forbes, which takes stock of the beloved foods of which no Russian can any more partake, since Prime Minister Medvedev yesterday announced, that Russia has banned the import of certain food products – meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, dairy products – from countries which joined in the sanctions against Russia. And which have hitherto been the main suppliers of food to the country.

In the West, the news speaks mainly about how much the economies of the EU countries will lose with the ban. Forbes, however, shows how much the Russians lose. True, Forbes is considered to be a journal of the rich, and accordingly it illustrates each type of food with gourmet goods. But since every Russian aspires into this category, and the inspiration as to what must be consumed to accomplish this came from Forbes, among others, so the disappearance of these foods is a sensitive loss to large strata of society. The emotional impact is also enhanced by the appetizing photos: you see, by losing this standard we pay the price for the fuss in the Donbas.

Valio. Several products of the Finnish Valio company are banned, including Viola cheese, Valio and Gefilus cottage cheese and yoghurt, and other dairy products. 90% of Valio products are produced in Finland. Although the group also has factories in Russia, they produce only the Viola cream cheese here.

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Construction of the Friendship gas pipeline in 1981. On the pipe is written:
“Your sanctions are not worth a fig [literally: a tube], Mr. Reagan!”

Dissolving: Fibonacci

This photo of the 8 April session of the Ukrainian parlament with an analysis of its proportions might suggest three things to the viewer.

To an extraterrestrial, that the earthlings perform all their actions, even the most spontaneous and passionate, according to complicated ritual rules, like a great dance.

To an earthling, that the law of the golden ratio defines everything.

To a cynical earthling, that with a bit of effort, the pattern of the golden ratio can be read into anything.

A photographer knows, that until he begins to photograph parliaments, thousands of pictures with the golden ratio are seen, praised, and made by he himself, so he shoots similar ones by habit, then he chooses, from among the dozens of shots, those that are the closest to it for publication, and if necessary, he even trims it (as here, where by cropping the right hands, he sacrifices a perfect pyramidal composition for the sake of a perfect golden ratio).

And an art historian knows that the golden ratio as an universal law must be analyzed only in such pictures where it can be shown.

Parallel realities

If you rarely travel home you can also be astonished by things which have become quite common for the folks back home.

Europe is burning with the fever of the Football World Cup. In Berlin, Prague, Krakow, in the bars, billboards and firewalls you can see the photos of the national teams, or at least of the teams favored by the respective nation. However, on my way from Poland to Maramureș, as I surface from the metro in Budapest at Ferenciek Square, I waver for a moment, wondering whether I have lost a year and have gone back in time. In front of the national tobacco shop* owned by the Franciscan order, still with the wrought iron Sacrament of the former church shop above its door, the poster invites you to cheer in the English-Hungarian London football match of sixty years ago in the fast food shop which has opened in the place of the former church bookstore.

Proceeding dwon Károly Boulevard, the seemingly dislocated time is gradually rectified, as the few bars and posters appear to celebrate the same World Cup as the rest of Europe. But when you turn the corner of Rumbach Street, some unexpected actuality creeps out gradually from the vacant lot facing the synagogue.

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The firewall poster painted in memory of “the match of the century”, that is, the glorious London 6:3 of the Hungarian Golden Team, as the Urbanista blog writes, was made by the Neopaint Works not expressly for the World Cup, but for the Hungarian national feast of last October. However, this is not to reduce, but rather to increase the currency of the work. Just as the ironic song of Hobo Blues Band, written in 1986 with the commonplaces of the 1950s about this national myth, has not lost its relevance in the past thirty years.

Hatot rúgtunk Angliának, olyan mint egy álom,
A mi hazánk nevét zengik szerte a világon,
Szepesi Gyuri volt a magyar nép szeme,
A rádió mellett együtt éltünk vele.

Köszönjük a hat gólt, a pompás győzelmet,
Kedves magyar fiúk, a szívünk veletek,
Felétek száll hálánk, boldog lázban élünk,
S velünk együtt boldog a mi bölcs vezérünk.

Túl a Don-kanyaron, Isonzón, Mohácson,
Büszke most a magyar, zengik a világon:
Négy-kettő a félidőben, a végén hat-három!

Gyarmatai vérét szívja a Brit Birodalom,
Mégis hogy megroggyant e szép őszi napon,
A híres oroszlán áll a gyászos ködben,
A béketábor meg piros-fehér-zöldben.

Hatszáz csille szénnel több jön a bányából,
Az öntudatos vájár ma százasával számol,
Nevezetes év lett ez az ötvenhárom,
Győzelmet arattunk a kapitalistákon.

We kicked six to England, it is like a dream,
now the name of our land is sung all over the world.
[The commentator] Gyuri Szepesi was the eye of the Hungarian people,
In front of the radio we breathed with him.

Thank you for the six goals, the gorgeous victory,
Dear Hungarian boys, our heart is with you.
Our gratitude flies to you, we live in a happy fever,
And our wise Leader is happy together with us.

Beyond the Don Bend, * Isonzo, * Mohács, *
is now happy the Hungarian, and all the world is echoing:
Four-two at half-time, six-three at the end.

The British Empire is sucking the blood of its colonies,
But it cracked on this beautiful autumn day.
The famous lion stands in the mournful haze,
And the peace camp in red-white-green.

Six hundred extra cars come today from the mine,
The self-conscious miner counts today by hundreds.
The year of 53 became a glorious year:
We have gained a victory over the capitalists!


The land of the rising ball

The task of the ennobled firewall is, as the district mayor puts it, to embellish the unused, ugly wall of the vacant lot. And with good reason. On the huge lot at Rumbach Sebestyén Street 8 until recently there stood the Jakabffy house, the most beautiful merchant’s palace of the district, according to the neighborhood monographist Anna Perczel. It was built in 1872, the same year as Otto Wagner’s fashionable synagogue opposite the street. Both the street and courtyard front of the palace were lined with shops. In its courtyard there was, since 1775, the renowned ballrom of Hacker’s Inn, the Hacker Sala, which hosted between 1809 and 1812 the first Hungarian-language theater of Pest. In the summer of 1944 it was designated as a yellow-star house. This grand building was pulled down in 2002, in the framework of the infamous 7th district real estate bubble, by the local government, to build a seven-storey garage in the heart of the protected heart of the district. This, however, was not realized, and it is now the twelfth year that a parking has been operating on the empty and desolate plot.

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Perhaps the football policy without football is right. Instead of facing bleak present, it might be indeed more comfortable to look back to those golden days, when the poet Ernő Szép could still say:

A football az, ami a földön
mindenkit őrülten érdekel.
Hát az F.T.C. Budapestről
Az ő lábával útra kel.

Megy az F.T.C. a lábával
Megy Bécsbe és Berlinbe megy,
Az eredmény a mi javunkra
Hol 2:1 hol 3:1.

Megy az F.T.C. a lábával
Hamburgon át, Londonba ki,
És itt is, ott is nagyokat rúg,
Isten fizesse meg neki.

Istenem áldd meg az F.T.C.-t,
Mivel ott tartunk már manap,
Hogy a külföldön legalább a
Lábunkkal szóbaállanak.
Football is what crazily
interests everyone in the world.
So, the F.T.C. * from Budapest
sets on the way with its feet.

Goes the F.T.C. with its feet,
to Vienna and Berlin it goes,
and the result, in our favor,
is 2:1 and 3:1.

Goes the F.T.C. with its feet,
through Hamburg to London,
and here and there it kicks a lot,
may God bless it for that.

God bless the F.T.C.,
because it brought us to the point
that abroad they are inclined
to talk at least to our feet.

A principle of the government: “Never change a tested evil”. The eagle swooping down on the football in front of the recently built stadion of F.T.C. repeats the central motif of the Nazi eagle swooping down on the Hungarian crown on the recently erected, and passionately debated monument of the 1944 German occupation of Hungary


Sayat Nova: Dun en glkhen (Entreaty of the king before his exile), Gaguik Mouradian, solo kamanche, 3’40”

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The four letters of God

God’s name in vain… Frehling Santino, 1700

An instructive article appeared yesterday at the Nyelv és Tudomány (Science and Language) portal, from the keyboard of László Fejes. The article entitled Honnan jött az isten? (“Where did god come from?”) tries to unravel the origin of the Hungarian word isten, ʻgod’, and the lesson is that only God knows. The TESz, that is, the etymological dictionary of the Hungarian language, as we have already pointed out a couple of times here at río Wang, now shoots wide of the mark again, when it relates the first element is- with the word ős, ʻancient, forefather’, which phonetically sounds unlikely. The historian András Róna-Tas suggests that it might come from the name of the Hittite sun god Ištanu, but the gap of 1800 years between the Hittite origin and the assumed reception excludes it. And Károly Rédei in his article “Isten szavunk eredete” (“The origin of our word Isten, ʻGod’”, Magyar Nyelv XCV (1999) 1, 40-45) regards it an Iranian loan word, and derives it from the Middle Iranian *ištān, ʻhonored’ (plural).

I also want to contribute to the small shop of etymologies with an attractive piece of merchandise, which may not be the most convincing, but is definitely the oldest. It comes from the eleven-language dictionary of Calepinus, published in 1590 in Basle, which I happen to have here on my bookshelf. ;) I found this bulky folio volume some thirty year ago in a waste paper recycling shop, and purchased it at the price of scrap paper, for about one euro in today’s currency.

The Augustinian monk Ambrosius Calepinus (1440-1510) published in Reggio in 1502 his great Latin dictionary, which, next to the definition of the words, quoted several examples of their use from classical authors. The dictionary immediately became very popular, with dozens of editions throughout the centuries, which also included equivalents to the Latin words for increasingly ancient and modern languages. The 1590 Basle edition was the one which first included the Hungarian and English equivalents, thus it can be regarded as the first Hungarian dictionary. The Hungarian words, as Kálmán Szily pointed out (“Ki volt Calepinus magyar tolmácsa?” – “Who was Calepinus’ Hungarian interpreter?” Értekezések a Nyelv- és Széptudományok köréből, XIII (1886) 8), were added by the Transylvanian Jesuite Stephanus Arator, that is, István Szántó in Rome. And the same person complemented the considerations on the four letters of God’s name with a Hungarian supplement, thereby also offering an etymology of the Hungarian Isten.

Dĕŭs, singular, masculine [in Hebrew אלוח eloah, Greek Θεός, French Dieu, Italian Dio, Idio, German Gott, Flemish Godt, Spanish Dios, Polish Bood, Hungarian Isten or Ιϛε * , English God].

Its origin is explained in several ways. According to some, it comes ἀπὸ τοῦ δέους, from fear, because they considered, that (if we are allowed at all to quote such an ungodly phrase) the first gods were invented by fear. Papinius seems to be of this view, when he says: The first gods were created by fear in the world. Cicero, On the responses of the haruspices: «Who is so foolish, that at least when he looks up to the sky, would not feel the existence of the gods?» Idem, in book 1 of The laws: «No nation is so uncouth or savage, that even if they do not know which god they have, at least they know that they have one.»

Others derive it a dando, from ʻgiving’, because everything comes from God, the source of all good things, and He gives to everything the existence and survival. Others from the Greek δαίω, ʻto know’, because God knows everything, and everything is naked before His eyes. Again others from the name Θεός, replacing the unvoiced sound with a voiced one, and the o with u, and this is why we say Deus in Latin. Again others from the Hebrew name די Dai, ʻmighty, sufficient’, from which also the term Saddai comes, meaning the omnipotent or self-sufficient God, as it is well known that He is enough for Himself, He does not need anyone, but He alone pours out abundance to everyone.

It is not unworthy to consider, that almost every people and language writes the name of God in four letters. In fact, the Hebrews call Him יחוח Yehova, with four letters, the Chaldeans also with four letters, אלוח Eloha, the Syriacs also אלוח Eloha; at the Aethiopians He is אמלו Amlau, at the Assyrians אדעד Adad, at the Greeks Θεός, at the Egyptians Θωύθ, at the Persians Σύρη, at the Latins Deus, at the Italians Idio, at the Spanish Dios, at the French Dieu, at the Germans, Flemish and English Gott or Godt, at the [Persian] Magi Orsi, at the Poles Boog, from bog, that is, ʻfear’, at the Dalmatians and Illyrians Boga or Boog, at the older Muslims, whom we also call Saracens, Abgd, at the Turks following Mohamed Alla, at the peoples discovered in the world called “new” Zimi, at the Vlachs Zëul, at the Gypsies Odel.

At the Hungarians, if we look at its origin, the name of God has also four letters. They call him with great respect Isten, which, although seems to have five letters, if we consider its origin, has only four. In fact, the Hungarian term comes from the second aorist of the Greek verb ʻto be’ ἴστημι, which sounds ἐϛὶν [ἐστὶν]: ʻI exist, I am by way of myself’, which second aorist is written with four letters. The s and t, written with two letters in the Hungarian word, are both encompassed in the single Greek letter ϛ sigmatau. Thus, by virtue of its origin, the Hungarian name also has to be written with four letters, so: Ἴϛεν [Ἴστεν]. In this way, the name of God is a τετραγράμματον [four-letter name] for every people, and we think He is called so, because His essence is one, but within His one essence He is three actually existing and different persons.”

László Fejes is probably of the same opinion, for in his article – merely as a hilarious illustration – transcribes the Hungarian word Isten with four Hebrew letters. ;)

Ultimately, this is not very different from the solution of István Szántó, who, having transcribed the word in Greek letters, discovered in it the meaning of the other Hebrew tetragrammaton, יחוח YHWH, ʻthe Existing, the One who Is’. But why should we marvel at this? In his century it was widely known that all languages, but especially Hungarian, came from Hebrew.

The tetragrammaton (here transcribed as IEVE instead of YHWH) as the foundation of the Holy Trinity. Illustration of Dialogue against the Hebrews (1109) by Petrus Alphonsus (before his conversion, Moses Sepharadi), St. John’s College MS E. 4 f. 153v