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PN Review 275
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This article is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

1939: Before Darkness Fell* Ian Thomson
‘No one knew that this was to be the infamous year of the Munich Pact, but everyone knew that soon there would be a new world war…’

Delmore Schwartz, ‘New Year’s Eve’

Delmore Schwartz, ‘New Year’s Eve’, Erich Haugas and his sisters Benita and Ella

Erich Haugas and his sisters Benita and Ella

In the summer of 1939 my grandfather Erich Haugas took part in an international agricultural conference in Budapest. He was thirty-eight and his professional pride was flattered. As a chemist he was in charge of the Dairy Export Control Station laboratory in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. To his untravelled eyes this was the trip of a lifetime: Budapest was the last stretch of Western ‘civilization’ before the East and the closest to a West European capital many Estonians would ever get. No direct train went to Hungary: Erich had to take three trains through Latvia, Polish-occupied Lithuania, Poland and the Nazi vassal state of Slovakia: a round trip of 2,300 miles across European frontiers electric with future troubles. The fear of world war was in many minds all over Europe – but to my grandfather the rumours of war were just that: rumours.

His wife Elfriede was anxious. There was no sane reason Erich had to go: a number of delegates had turned down invitations. The calamity of Poland was close at hand but if Erich sensed the gathering emergency, he did not let it show. With a suitcase packed for a two-week absence he arrived at the Baltic Station in the early hours of a July morning. The Tallinn platform was buzzing with the excitement of an imminent departure. The Estonian State Railways express to Budapest was made up of smart dark green carriages, and in the restaurant car the tables lit by small lamps were already laid for breakfast. The purser showed my grandfather to the compartment he was to share with the Estonian journalist Artur Taska, who was due to get on at the Polish–Slovak border. Prominent figures in Estonian public life – agronomists,

writers, politicians – were on the train bound for Budapest, among them Estonia’s military attaché to Hungary, Ludvig Jakobsen, and the opera soprano Milvi Laid. Heinrich Feischner, the classical composer, had a sleeping-berth to himself (his father owned the ritzy Café Feischner in Tallinn). In the first-class couchettes a group of agricultural commercial advisers were busy discussing wheat husking and milk powder manufacture. Velda Aurora Rüütli, a platinum-blonde orthodontist attached to Budapest University, sat on her own in a compartment adjacent to them; she was the kind of Estonian woman who could take care of herself. Horticulturalists from Helsinki, hoping to enjoy a summer holiday in Budapest with their wives, wore light linen ‘sporting’ suits and straw sun boaters. Up the aisle the porters came carrying hat boxes and trunks. Voices reached my grandfather in his compartment. ‘Are you travelling to Budapest?’ ‘No, not so far – only to Riga.’ Baron Vladimir Bulgarin, a Baltic German chemist, was travelling to Brno University in Nazi-annexed Moravia. Already there was an atmosphere on board of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 railway thriller The Lady Vanishes.

The station clock struck the hour – 9am – and the train began to move. On the platform Elfriede raised a hand in farewell – and then she was gone. The train settled to its rhythm and soon it was racing over the rails. Outside Jäneda the trackway broadened and the signals flashed green across the stations: Tapa, Jõgeva, Tabivere. My grandfather was still at breakfast when the express reached the Estonian university town of Tartu (where, in 1901, he had been born to a minor Tsarist functionary). The July sun fell on Tartu’s wood-and-glass railway station and on the viaduct bridge at Elva beyond. At Valga four hours later the train came to a halt. Valga was on the Estonian–Latvian border and rife with smuggling. On the Latvian side the station was called Valka. (‘One Town, Two Countries’, people joked.) The small dusty Estonian station had VALGA painted in black letters on the customs shed.

Estonian frontier police in grey fatigues came down between the lines with leashed dogs. They made a list of all the passengers on the train – names, nationalities – and examined passports and exit visas and searched everyone’s luggage. Among those who got on at Valga was the Finnish music prodigy Heikki Lahti; soon there would not be a town of any size between Riga and Prague where the six-year-old mandolin virtuoso had not performed. Lahti was travelling to Budapest with the Estonian theatre director Jullo Talpsepp as his chaperone. A number of Polish and Lithuanian nationals boarded. Szepsel Berkman, an accountant, was on his way to visit Jewish relatives in Vilnius in Polish Lithuania. Jews were not popular. The only head of state at this time to extend a helping hand to Jews was General Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic; by issuing Jews with 100,000 visas he hoped to increase the ‘white’ population of his Caribbean country, which was mostly mixed-race or black.* In the end only a few hundred Jews – Austrian, Polish, German – settled in Trujillo’s Caribbean haven. Admiral Horthy, the antisemitic and anti-Slav regent of Hungary, had allied himself with Hitler in the hope of reclaiming lands lost to Hungary after the First World War. With the Führer’s help Horthy had already recovered parts of southern Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruth (the birthplace in 1892 of Andy Warhol’s mother Julia Warhola). European power politics in the late Thirties were a dirty game played out by the dictators.

Belching steam, the train edged backwards out of Valga through a level-crossing. The Latvian border – a stretch of no man’s land called the ‘Neutral Zone’ – was closed off by a barrier of carmine red and white, the Latvian colours. An official with the Red Lion and Silver Griffin of Latvia on his cap banged down a VALKAS STACIJÄ (Valka Station) stamp on my grandfather’s passport and three hours later the train pulled into the Latvian capital of Riga. More Budapest congress delegates got on at Riga. Columns of steam rose from the waiting engine while porters loaded the guard’s van with crates of food and alcohol. From Riga the train continued on to Daugavpils (Dvinsk under the Tsars). Daugavpils had a rich Jewish culture – the American painter Mark Rothko was born there in 1903 – but the station would soon facilitate the industrial horror that was Hitler’s war on Polish Jewry: Daugavpils was a key junction for trains coming in from Jewish-populated Warsaw and Vilnius.

Erich Haugas: visa stamps

Erich Haugas: visa stamps

Before long the train had reached Zemgale, the border point between southern Latvia and Poland. Built in 1922, Zemgale station today serves as a Roman Catholic church but in my grandfather’s day it was a vital crossroads – Latvia’s gateway into Central and Southern Europe. Inevitably Zemgale stood on contested lands. In 1920, after seizing a sliver of Lithuania, Poland had claimed part of Latvia’s border close to Zemgale. Violence was mounting daily in Polish-annexed central Lithuania between Polish and Lithuanian nationals. The train lurched and the points changed before it reached the Polish border station of Turmonolo (now Turmantas in Lithuania), a main transit point for Kharkiv in Soviet Ukraine on the Tsarist-era Warsaw–St Petersburg line. Armed with revolvers, Polish customs control got on the train and asked to see identification papers.

Next stop was Vilnius, the de jure capital of Lithuania, which Lithuania had surrendered to Poland in 1922 following the Polish-Lithuanian conflict that broke out after the First World War (Vilnius was ‘Wilno’ to the Poles). The train continued along the Katowice line across western Belarus to arrive at Bialystok, the largest city in north-eastern Poland, situated now in the so-called Suwalki Gap, a sixty-mile-long strip of Poland and Lithuania straddled to the west by Putin’s Russia and to the east by Belarus under Putin’s dictator ally Lukashenko. If there is to be a Third World War, say the experts, it may flare up here.

Soon Warsaw approached and in their sleeping cars the passengers stirred. The gold watch in my grand-father’s nightshirt pocket – his father Johannes Haugas’s gold watch in its dented case – kept time but what time was it? A mass of blast furnaces and ancient castles rose along the line. At Warsaw Central the passengers got off and changed trains. The new train would go all the way to Athens via Istanbul. During the three-hour wait that morning my grandfather had time to enquire at the newly opened Slovak embassy in Warsaw if visas were required of Estonian nationals. The embassy said they were not: as a newborn republic, Slovakia felt a kinship with the twenty-year-old Estonia.

On 8 July – day two of my grandfather’s journey across the disputed lands of pre-war Europe – the frontiers of Poland and Slovakia converged at the Polish station of Czaca on the edge of the Nazi-occupied Czech territories. Depending on whether the speaker was Polish, Magyar, Czech or Slovak, the railway station was Czaca, Czadca, Čaca or Čadca (the diacritic over the C created an unmistakably Slovakian ‘tch’ sound.) The station buffet, with its filigree gables and Alpine-style window-boxes, served Polish beer in silver-lidded tankards. Strikingly, the two Polish borders Erich Haugas had crossed thus far – at Zemgale and Czaca – were the result of inter-war nationalist annexations. In autumn 1938 Poland had grabbed a part of Slovakia close to Czaca, an annexation of Czech-governed territory that amounted to an attack on fellow Slavs and appeared to put Warsaw on the same low moral level as Nazi Berlin. The Polish government was now actively pursuing right-wing antisemitic policies of varying toxicity and had orchestrated a campaign of ‘Polonisation’ that exalted the Catholic Polish race and nation over Russian territorial expansionist ambitions. There were now ‘ghetto benches’ in Polish universities, with quotas restricting the number of Jews able to graduate.

Artur Taska

Artur Taska

At Czaca, Artur Taska found my grandfather without difficulty and greeted him with a handshake. In his mid-twenties, the journalist had slicked-back dark hair and dark determined eyes behind horn rims. He edited the Valga-based Southern Estonia newspaper and was familiar with chemico-agricultural issues in the region. With their shared interest in chemistry, he and my grandfather quickly became friends. Artur Taska’s brief was to cover the Budapest conference for the Estonian press, which he did under the byline ‘A.T’ or sometimes ‘-ska’ (Taska abbreviated). The only other passengers with him and my grandfather in the compartment at this point were a Hungarian woman and her teenage daughter. The daughter wore a ‘pin-up’ hairstyle, Taska noted, with coloured ribbon bows and a ‘modern­looking’ dress patterned with Hungarian national motifs (eagles, crowns, double crosses). The mother, in her early thirties, had carefully manicured hands with ‘deep red nails’. They both spoke German: most middle-class Hungarians spoke German.

Sunlight flooded the carriage as Polish officials boarded and checked visas. Rubber-stamped in my grandfather’s passport (above the rubric: ‘Business Visa No 43’) was a Polish crowned eagle; his papers were in order. The Polish patrolmen put a circular blue CZACA stamp in all four passports before the train inched forwards out of Poland across the frontier into Nazi Slovakia. Everything was quiet at Čadca, as the station was now called. In this wolf-harbouring part of the Carpathian Mountains with its hazel spinneys and flower-filled summer meadows, the Slovak people lived under Hitler’s shadow. Everyone in Slovakia – even Jews – had a swastika in their passports. Following the Nazi assault on Prague and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, in March 1939 Slovakia had seceded and allied itself gratefully to Hitler. By virtue of its position at the heart of Europe, Slovakia was integral to the Thousand Year Reich and was poised to become the gateway of the new Nazi empire into the Balkans and the occupied East. Swastika bunting fluttered along the station platform amid red, blue and white rosettes – the Slovak colours.

Frontiers have a dynamism all their own and can set off a reflex of unease. My grandfather, agitated, smoked cigarettes in the train corridor while the engine idled. An hour went by; two hours. Hens strutted over the rails. On the platform a boy was selling poppy seed cakes. The only sound, apart from the hissing of the engine, was the boy’s voice, wheedling, insistent: cakes, hot cakes. More time passed. At last Slovak customs police with their red shoulder boards and peaked caps opened the carriage door with a ‘Heil Hitler!’ Did the four passengers give the Nazi salute in return? (One of the first decisions any foreign traveller had to make in Axis Europe in 1939 was whether or not to outstretch the arm in fascist greeting.) In Slovakia in what was once the Czech Republic the casual traveller might not see overt signs of Nazi oppression but the constant heiling and heel-clicking of railway and border staff told its own story. Hitler’s march into Prague – tearing up the Munich Agreement as he went – legitimised Jew-hatred. Anti-Jewish demonstrations had erupted in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava – the old ugly story of broken windows and shouted insults – and Jews had been removed from the Slovak economy and subjected to expropriations. The new republic’s sizeable German-speaking minority – about 150,000 in a population of 2 million – championed the solid burgherly values of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). The notion of equality between the sexes, like the existence of homosexuality or avant-garde music, was dismissed by these Carpathian Germans as ‘Jewish’ and decadent. Many Poles thought the same way; after Germany, Poland was the first country to recognise Slovakia’s existence.

The Slovak border police returned the Estonian passports to Taska and my grandfather with ‘the compliments of the Führer’, but they ordered the Hungarian women to get down off the train. Why? Because they
did not have the ‘correct visas’ to continue on through Slovakia. Unruffled and unconcerned the officials demanded payment ‘Now!’, spitting out the word as if it were a bad taste. Close to tears the women beseeched the officials to reconsider. After much haggling, an on-the-spot fine of 20 Hungarian pengős (about £80 today) was levied. The Hungarians had been over-fined, but then Hungary, unlike Estonia, was not reckoned to be a Slovak-friendly state: Slovakia had gone to war with Hungary in 1938 over possession of a railway line along the Slovak–Hungarian frontier and the thousands of Hungarians who lived within the Slovak frontiers were agitating now for autonomy. The police put the money in their wallets and moved on to the next carriage. My grandfather tried to reassure the Hungarian mother and her daughter that customs inspectors everywhere in the world had the same rapacious hands. ‘One day you’ll be dining out on the episode over a nice glass of wine!’, he said. The women smiled wanly and then, very bizarrely, expressed a surprise that Erich and Taska were Baltic nationals: they had assumed they were Japanese. Japanese? The ‘awkward misunderstanding’, as Taska called it, might have been prompted by the fact that Taska had a bespectacled studious air and Finno-Ugric upward tilting eyes that conceivably suggested those of Emperor Hirohito. (But this is dangerous territory – race scientists’ territory.) The Hungarians mumbled an apology before the conversation moved on.

In the morning sun the train’s shadow stumbled over fields and meadows. Carpathian villages glimpsed from the train were often no more than a cluster of farm buildings and roadside crucifixes watched over by a carved wooden church. Everywhere, Slovak folk were bent over their fields, carting the hay and leading their oxen. In this newly Germanised territory the swastika flamed a bright red. Presently a new name impinged: Banská Bystrica, a city in the Low Tatras, whose Gothic merchants’ houses and medieval barbicans reminded Taska (he said) of the Hansa houses of Tallinn. Forward of the dining car a group of Finnish farm experts, rhythmically swaying with the train, were in high spirits in the glow of after-breakfast. At Zvolen, the final stop in the Slovak Central Mountains, a Slovak army officer got on. Enmeshed in pipe smoke on the platform was a huddle of dark-complexioned villagers in conical fleece hats and sheepskin jerkins. Romani lived in Slovakia in great numbers. Their Indo-Aryan language owed nothing to the adjacent Slav tongues and a great deal to Sanskrit. Hitler would deal with them.

The last of the morning sun came out as the train pulled into Lovinobaňa. From the carriage window Taska sneaked a photograph of an elderly Slovak man standing by the station bench with a boy – perhaps his grandson. The man has on a Tyrolean style felt hat. Visible on the wall above him is an enamel sign bearing the two-barred Slovak cross of the First Slovak Republic. After an hour the train approached the Hungarian border station of Losonc (today Lučenec in southern Slovakia), where passengers had to disembark and queue up outside an office with the sinister name ‘National Centre for the Surveillance of Foreigners’. Hungary was still nominally a monarchy; a Royal Hungarian policeman looked through passports and paperwork with slow deliberation, darting occasional steely looks, before stamping them with M.KIR – ‘Kingdom of Hungary’. For a fee of 50 fillérs (the ‘penny’ of interwar Hungary) my grandfather was granted a Hungarian visa ‘posteriorly’ as he had neglected to secure one back home in Tallinn.

Photo by Artur Taska, <i>Postimees</i>
Photo by Artur Taska, Postimees

As the wheels thudded along the tracks towards Budapest the Danube flowed alongside, less a waterway than a mirror reflecting vanished Austro-Habsburg lands. Log-rafts with Slovakian forest lumber drifted by. In its east-west meander from Bavaria to the Black Sea the Danube had united under the double-headed eagle Turkish Tartars, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bulgarian Muslims, Romani, Jews and Russian Old Believers: East to West. Few wished for the Habsburg Empire’s return yet Hitler and Stalin between them were about to unleash a viciousness far greater than anything the German-Hungarian rulers in their Vienna fastness could have dreamed of. Jewish, Slav and Romani communities would disappear overnight as monarchical semi-tolerance was replaced by totalitarian intolerance. Fascism had become Europe’s new ‘sacred religion’, observed Eric Ambler, whose espionage thrillers from this time (Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm) anatomized the heart of Europe’s darkness on the eve of war. Something new was beginning in the Danubian heartlands; quite what, no one yet knew.

After Szob the couplings strained and the train at last pulled in to Budapest-Keleti. The station, all elaborate gilt and stucco with marble Germanic Habsburg nymphs and satyrs under the architraves, had no equivalent in the Baltic. Over the platform hung a scent of charcoal smoke and fried paprika pods: unfamiliar Magyar smells. People hurried down the platform anxious to secure seats for Istanbul and other East-West connections. With Taska my grandfather shared a taxi for Pest on the Danube’s left bank where they unpacked in the Danube Palace Hotel. Their rooms looked out across the Buda Hill and the needle spire of St Stephen’s Basilica. The Hungarian capital – Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1938 for the Catholic Herald – ‘forms one of the most beautiful cityscapes that exists along a river’, adding: ‘It is the most beautiful in Europe’.

Next day, Erich took in the German Jugendstil buildings with their green-tiled turrets and the window boxfuls of petunias. After Tallinn everything looked gigantic to him. Budapest had six hundred cafés. The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street – part Moorish, part Byzantine – was the largest synagogue in Europe and could seat 3,000 worshippers. Budapest was the banking centre of Central and Eastern Europe and the city’s slick Austro-Habsburg haste and efficiency impressed Erich greatly. In the chandeliered Habsburg glory that was the Café Gerbeaud in Vörösmarty Square he ordered a breakfast of black tea with lemon, rose-leaf jam, croissants and chocolate buttercream sponge cake. Lunch consisted of pork and sauerkraut pungently flavoured with caraway. Except for the paprika, the Germanic fare was not so unlike Estonia’s. The Ottomans had introduced the scarlet ‘Turkish pepper’ paprikia to Middle Europe in the sixteenth century and now it was ubiquitous. Erich sampled the Danube’s coveted beluga sturgeon whose head tapered into a prehistoric-looking snout, as well as Lake Balaton pike-perch, which reminded him of the pike-perch of Estonia’s Lake Peipsi. Lugubrious Bela Lugosi-like waiters brought him foaming steins of beer and shots of apricot vodka, sales of which had increased after the Duke of Windsor (the abdicated Edward VIII) was overheard to say he liked it during a visit to Budapest in 1937 as a guest of the dictator Horthy.

The conference delegates made their way to the Royal Palace for a reception. In his suit and tie Erich climbed up the hill to the Hofburg-like eminence that overlooked the Danube from Buda on the west bank. In the building’s ornate Buffet Gallery with its marble statuary and suits of armour, the Hungarian Minister of Agriculture, Nicholas de Kállay, was busy introducing himself with a word of thanks and a handshake to the attendees. At one end of the gallery a string quartet played Strauss and at the other, flanked by sabre-carrying cavalrymen, stood His Serene Highness Admiral Horthy, the pro-German Regent of Hungary. Conservative and authoritarian, Horthy governed Hungary with all the prerogatives of a Habsburg monarch. He had introduced antisemitic legislations a decade before the Nazis; the latest of his anti-Jewish laws – promulgated in May 1939 – banned Jews from entering the legal profession and from owning property. To Horthy the Hungarian nation – the natio Hungarica – was a Christian bulwark against the threat of Red atheism and Jewry. It had been so against the ‘civilizational threat’ posed by Turks and Islam centuries earlier. Horthy’s was a counter-revolutionary ethnic nationalist ideology that championed illiberalism over the parliamentary values of the West, and yet, like President Konstantin Päts of Estonia, he was not quite the dictator he was often labelled, being disliked by both the far Left and the far Right. Just as Päts had banned the neo-fascist VAPS movement in Estonia, Horthy had banned the Hungarian Nazi-fascist Arrow Cross Party (not least for its perceived threat to his own power). The press was freer in Hungary under Horthy than in Hitler’s Germany, or, for that matter, in the Soviet Union or fascist Italy. People could talk freely on the streets of Budapest as they could not in Nazi Berlin. The problem for Hungarist populists and Hungarist patriots was – ironically – Hitler. On the other side of the Danube only a few miles from Budapest were blocks of ethnic, pro-Arrow Cross German volk who wished to be part of a united German race. The fear was that their restiveness might overflow into Hungary – and then what? In private Horthy little admired Hitler but he was far more virulently anti-Russian. To the north, across the Carpathians, one great nation was conspicuously absent from the congress delegates: Soviet Russia. Earlier in 1939 Horthy had joined Germany, Italy and Japan in the Anti-Comintern Pact against Moscow and he was no friend of International Communism.

Large and bulbous-nosed, in a black tailcoat and high stiff collar, Horthy exchanged polite, starchy talk with the delegates. He was a gifted linguist, with fluent French, Italian, Czech and Croatian and good English (James Joyce having been his English tutor in Austrian-Adriatic Trieste). As Estonia’s official representative, my grandfather was required to shake hands with Horthy but what he made of the Magyar autocrat is not recorded. Perhaps they spoke of Hungarian–Estonian affinities and historic friendships. (The Magyars, like the Estonians, are reckoned to be a Finno-Ugric people: the roots of the Magyar language are Finno-Ugric.)** Erich had read in Estonian translation Ferenc Molnár’s popular 1906 Hungarian novel The Paul Street Boys, about warring adolescents in turn-of-the-century Budapest, and maybe he mentioned that to Horthy. Or maybe not.

Later that evening, in the Westminsterian neo-Gothic Parliament building on the other side of the Danube, Hungarian captains of industry and banking lavished the delegates with champagne and platters of Danube sturgeon roe. My grandfather braced himself for the following day’s round of conferences. These were held in the University of Technology and Economics. There, Erich gave a series of talks on dairy biochemistry and food preservation, which were ‘well received’ by fellow delegates (Taska reported in the Estonian newspaper Päevaleht.) In addition, he attended lectures on baking, distilling and wine-making, and sampled ersatz Hungarian foodstuffs made from dried banana powder. A Hungarian rice substitute based on husked wheat was found to be ‘particularly tasty’ (Erich reckoned) when cooked on charcoal-fired griddles. Hungary, self-sufficient in grains, could feed much of Central Europe with its rice substitutes. Displayed on stands and stalls in the university halls were samples of Hungarian chocolate pancakes and honeycomb confections. As a chain smoker my grandfather was drawn to the displays of Hungarian tobacco leaves. He was intrigued by the Hungarian-patented ‘Farinograph’ apparatus that could measure in a matter of minutes the consistency and nutritional value of wheat flour dough; every Estonian bakery ought to invest in a ‘Farinograph’, he told Taska.

In a coach convoy the next morning the delegates were driven across the great Hungarian Plain – the puszta – beyond Budapest. A bitter-sweet smell rose from the maize fields which shimmered in the July heat. Budapest’s rural belt with its plough horses and grazing moors was steppe-like in its vastness – the vastness of the central European hinterland. Over the hazy distance the sun was like a golden shield. Through the coach window Taska took photographs of the great plain as it rolled on flat as a ruler. Later that day the delegates were taken by steamer up the Danube to visit wine cellars and sample Tokay and other local whites. In Budapest’s castle-like Agricultural Museum my grandfather wandered in a daze through halls dedicated to bee-keeping.

He could not understand why, in a country of such bountiful grain-growing, so many people starved. Children begged for food outside Budapest’s bright-lit cafés and slept rough under the arches of Elizabeth Bridge. The aversion shown to the poor by the wealthy in Budapest was not lost on my grandfather. Old Austrian-Habsburg ideas concerning power and rank persisted; life was more caste-conscious and hierarchical in Budapest even than in Vienna. In the puszta, many of the big manorial estates were still in the hands of German-speaking foreign families who had supported the political interests of Austria and its Habsburg rulers. At the Budapest opera (where he went to see the Estonian prima donna Milvi Laid perform) Erich was amused by the sight of white-gloved attendants walking behind smokers with ashtrays at the ready. (‘If you’re a gentleman in Hungary you don’t even have to carry your own cigarette case’, he later told my mother axiomatically.)

Erich swam in the famous Gellért thermal baths near the Franz Josef Bridge where for the first time he became aware of Budapest’s huge non-Magyar population – the so-called ‘nationalities’, the Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks who made up half of Hungary’s total population. Budapest on the eve of the Second World War was a post-imperial city haunted by the collapse of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Tsarist empires and by the populations displaced by the First World War from Odessa, Kyiv, Smyrna and Istanbul.

On Margaret Island – Budapest’s Coney Island – Taska and my grandfather went to see the ‘Gypsy Violin King’ Imre Magyari in concert. In his tuxedo, the enormously fat Magyari was outwardly a prosperous bourgeois Hungarian who played his soulful Tzigane music to adoring wealthy crowds. Taska (who may or may not have been pro-Nazi) was careful in his Estonian journalism to distinguish Magyari from the ‘dirty, shabby’ Romani ‘wanderers’ who ‘infested’ the foothills of Slovakia (and ‘unfortunately’ parts of Estonia too). With Erich he went to see Romani bands play on violins, piano-keyed accordions and the xylophonic hybrid peculiar to Hungary: the cimbalom. Folk rhapsodies after Liszt and Brahms rang out from the bars and hotels.


On 12 July while my grandfather was in Budapest, a German naval frigate anchored in Tallinn Bay. The Admiral Hipper and her German crew were received with full pomp by the Estonian government, but brawls broke out between the German sailors and Tallinners. Nazi Germany blamed the unrest on ‘Communist provocateurs’, but an Englishman in Tallinn at the time, Arthur Duncan-Jones, thought otherwise. Duncan-Jones reckoned the German naval visit had served to expose the gulf between Estonia’s predominantly anti-German population and Estonia’s increasingly pro-German government. Duncan-Jones happened to be the Dean of Chichester (and the grandfather of the late Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones); he was on a mission in Tallinn to report to the Church of England the attitude of the Baltic States towards Britain and Britain’s waning sea power in the Baltic. The German war ship’s presence in Estonian waters only aggravated Estonian fears of the German master–slave ‘mentality’ and German territorial ‘ambitions’ in the Baltic generally, said the Dean; there was, too, the Estonians’ ‘latent fear’ of Russia, which had become accentuated that summer after Britain and France proposed the idea of a three-nation alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. An obscure English aristocrat by the improbable hyphenated name of Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax was dispatched to Moscow to open talks. The mode of his transport – he arrived by old cargo vessel – and his very name confirmed Soviet doubts about the mission’s seriousness. (To his Soviet hosts the admiral boasted, in that nice polite English way, that he was a Knight of the Order of the Bath, which the Russian interpreter translated as the Order of the Bathtub.) Though the talks came to nothing, the British Consulate-Legation in Tallinn was unable to reassure the Päts administration that the alliance (should it be cemented) posed no harm to Estonia. The Estonian fear was of Red Army soldiers advancing with a rifle in one hand and Communist propaganda leaflets in the other. The pro-Päts Estonian newspaper Uus Eesti (New Estonia) launched a bitter attack on the Allies for their perceived attempts to accommodate Stalin. ‘We have some experience of the Red Army – you in Britain appear to have forgotten this.’ France was lambasted in no less sarcastic tones:
And you, gentlemen in Paris, are you joking when you state in Le Petit Parisien (apparently in all seriousness) that if a pro-German uprising broke out in Tallinn or Riga, Moscow would interpret this as anti-Russian aggression, and take all steps necessary to protect its borders? If that is a joke, we think you are carrying it a little too far. Perhaps Le Petit Parisien could reveal to us the secret of who exactly in Tallinn or Riga is going to organise such a ‘pro-German’ uprising?

The truth is, Stalin had little interest in what he suspected would be a useless alliance with France and Britain (certainly it was not a pin’s-worth of advantage to him to have an anti-Bolshevik British Conservative Order of the Bath admiral on his side.) Rather than enter into an Allied alliance against Hitler, Stalin preferred to make an alliance with Hitler. Behind closed doors he began to consider the unthinkable. By the summer of 1939, despite having built his political life on a hatred of the capitalist right, Stalin set his mind to what the Nazis might have to offer. Stalin did not know the meaning of scruple. His chief propagandist, Andrei Zhdanov, had stated in Pravda on 29 June that Britain and France did not actually want a military alliance with the Soviet Union, the implication being that Germany might wish for one instead. Izvestiya, another Kremlin mouthpiece, went so far as to speak of partitioning Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany. These were the first public hints from Moscow of Joseph Stalin’s likely devil’s pact with Adolf Hitler. In a move calculated to appease the Führer, Stalin started to cleanse the Soviet Foreign Ministry of Jews, replacing the veteran Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov (whose brother was a rabbi) with Vyacheslav Molotov as Commissar for External Affairs. Litvinov’s Jewishness had long been a thorn in Stalin’s side; anti-Nazi and pro-Western, Litvinov had been a signatory at the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty between Estonia and Russia, but prolonged peace with Estonia was not what interested Stalin at this moment. Molotov had played a eager role in uprooting Trotskyists, kulaki and other ‘vermin’ from pre-war Soviet Russia, and was ready to wade through any depth of bloodshed to further his career. By appointing Molotov to External Affairs, Stalin opened a path to negotiations with Hitler, and Hitler understood well enough. His propaganda supremo Joseph Goebbels issued instructions to German journalists to desist from making ‘sharp attacks on the Soviet Union until further notice’. Stalin, the embodiment of morbid mistrust, had placed his trust in Hitler.


Europe was about to detonate. But if anyone, looking in a crystal ball, had said that in less than a year not only France but all three Baltic States would fall to the dictators, no one would have believed them. On 14 July, while my grandfather was lecturing in Hungary, an Estonian schoolgirl called Nora Lossman arrived in Paris in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Bastille Day. A Tallinn army officer’s daughter, Nora danced until dawn, drank champagne on the Champs-Élysées and watched the French military parades go by. On the rail journey home to Tallinn she witnessed what she later described as ‘a placid acceptance of wholesale tyranny’, which put a dark sobering shadow over the euphoric scenes she had witnessed in Paris. From the train window she caught a glimpse of Death’s Heads and Brown Shirts on the march. Amid ear-splitting ‘Heils’ she watched Hitler Youth salute and ritualistically kiss a Nazi flag on a station platform, the flag badged (she thought) in the blood of a fallen comrade. The irony was that Nora’s Estonian family counted many Baltic Germans as their friends. (‘Some of them were more Estonian than the Estonians – good people’, Nora recalled.) Her Polish mother, Maria Novicka, went horse riding with Baltic Germans in Tallinn’s Kadriorg Park. The family’s affection for German culture and the German language was so deep-rooted that it had not only survived the Estonian War of Independence but was apparently impervious to the Nazi Party’s infiltration of the Baltic German ranks.


On his last day in Budapest my grandfather exchanged 30 Estonian kroon (£140 today) in a bank on Baross Square and with the Hungarian currency he bought a Magyar folk doll for each of his two daughters, and for his wife a hand-embroidered Magyar blouse. His chemist’s budget stretched to a bottle of Hungarian ‘Bull’s Blood’ wine, Egri Bikavér, known locally as the ‘Vampire label’ for its associations with Dracula’s staked heart. (Erich noted with a philologist’s curiosity that the Hungarian and Estonian words for ‘blood’ were cognate: vér, veri.) He packed the gifts in his suitcase and left the Danube Palace Hotel for the conference’s gala closing ceremony in the Palatine Joseph University. The event, attended by the ever-watchful Admiral Horthy, was the talk of the Budapest gossip columns and society pages. Unsurprisingly Erich left Budapest with a feeling of regret. For ten days he had mixed with an international set of chemists, food scientists, oilseed plantation experts and plant pathologists; he had eaten a lot of rich Hungarian food, sat and smoked Sobranie cigarettes with Budapestian sophisticates and listened to Romani jazz. He marvelled at how the opportunity to travel through Poland, Slovakia and Hungary had fallen to a Tallinn chemist.

On the homeward journey to Estonia he shared a couchette with the White Russian chemist (and fellow Tartu University graduate) Konstantin Arensburger-Ivanov, who was known to be pro-German.*** The news from Moscow of a possible Allied pact with Stalin seems to have roused some vague uneasiness in Erich, as he went to some pains not to talk about it to Taska. On 21 July, a Friday, just as his train crossed the Slovak frontier into Poland, Wilfred Gallienne, the British consul in Tallinn, found himself cruising in a motor-boat on Lake Peipsi with the Estonian Foreign Minister Kaarel Selter. Soviet sentries on the Russian side of the lake watched them through binoculars. All appeared to be quiet. Lake Peipsi must be the ‘quietest spot’ in all the Baltic, Selter commented to Gallienne. ‘Yes’, Gallienne replied, ‘a cure for jitters’ – a reference to the generalised fear of war. The Russian frontier guards, who in the past had been so hostile and belligerent to their Estonian counterparts, now lavished them daily with gifts of chocolate and fruit. Selter was unable to deduce Russian intentions but he might have guessed that the Estonian border police were being ‘sweetened’ before Stalin opened negotiations with Hitler over the fate of Poland and the Baltic. Having fought against both the Germans and the Russian Bolsheviks in the Estonian War of Independence, Selter knew what to expect from a military occupation by either. As a sop to Gallienne he praised Neville
Chamberlain, Britain’s all-too trusting Prime Minister, as the ‘finest gentleman in Europe’.


My grandfather came back to Tallinn with his passport covered in central-European visas. Elfriede was ‘relieved to see him alive’, my mother recalled. No harm had been done to her husband, and marital harmony was restored. Estonian journalists queued up to ask Erich for his impressions of Budapest but the only word he could think of was ‘excellent’: how to describe the sunset over the Hungarian Plain or the Romani music? He was more forthcoming on the subject of Estonian–Hungarian trade relations. ‘Trade is unlikely to revive in the near future’, he said, and he explained why: Estonia used to export ‘vast quantities’ of wood pulp cellulose to Hungary, but now that Hungary had acquired ‘great forested regions’ from the carcass of Czechoslovakia, ‘Hungary could make all the cellulose it wanted from its own wood pulp’. Admiral Horthy was, though, interested in exporting paprika, which is ‘rich in vitamin C and cheaper and better for us than pepper’, my grandfather offered. As a parting shot he mentioned the pro-Hitler Duke of Windsor’s fondness for Hungarian apricot vodka: perhaps Estonia could import some of that?

He reported his Hungarian findings to his boss Kaarel Liidak at the Ministry of Agriculture at 39 Lai Street in Tallinn, then took his family with him on holiday to Tartu close to the Soviet Russian border. The European, or ‘world’, war was now only weeks away. Tartu with its medieval ramparts and quaint cobbled streets seemed so far removed from the tide of world events as to be almost unreal. The hotels were full of tourists, there was a fever of entertaining and drinking in the nightclubs. Hitler was at Poland’s gate, and darkness was about to fall on the unhappy continent of Europe.

*  Trujillo’s contempt for the ‘backward and dirty’ Vodou-ridden black immigrant workers from neighbouring Haiti led, in October 1937, to a massacre on the Dominican sugar plantations of some 25,000 Haitian cane-cutters. The racialist purge was reported in the Estonian press; Trujillonian ethnic cleansing – to use that horrible term – provided a template for Hitler’s imminent ethnocides and racial ‘solutions’.

**  My grandfather was a member of Tartu University’s ‘Fenno-Ugria’ cultural club, which fostered the study of Ural-Altaic customs and peoples, and which published the cultural magazine Eesti Höim (The Estonian Tribe). Finno-Ugric Tribal Day, held each October in Estonia until it was banned by the Soviets in 1940, was an occasion for Finns, Karelians, Estonians, Hungarians and other Ural-Altaic folk to come together. It is today again.

***  Among the Hungarians on the train were the much-loved Romani violinist-bandleader Jenő Farkas and the footballer László Keszei, who had played for Hungary at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

* 1939: Before Darkness Fell is an essay from a work-in-progress. The idea for it grew out of a piece on Eric Ambler by Ian Thomson which was originally published in Slightly Foxed.

This article is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

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