10 June 2023

The Danube in Lorraine

The Danube is a 4.5-kilometre-long river in Lorraine, France, which flows through the Rhine into the North Sea. There are no major European capitals on its banks, the largest settlement at its mouth has only 314 inhabitants.

"Le Danube" the river of Verdenal

I would never have found this hydrographic curiosity on my own, but luckily Eric Baude, the French author of the Danube Culture website, brought it to my attention over a beer in Zebegény. Most of the pictures are from him, as he had written about "Le Danube" before. This post is inspired by his writing, but it is not a literal translation. 

From the outset, it is important to note that the most important question can not be answered: where did this stream-like river get its name? Did the French envy their German neighbour's big river? Was it named in memory of the inhabitants who had migrated east on the "real" Danube? Or was it the Romans again...?

The valley of Verdenal in 1744. (mapire.eu)

150 kilometres northwest of the source of the Danube, on the other side of the Rhine, is the Danube river, or "Le Danube". It is called in French exactly the same as its big brother to the east. It's source is in the bucolic hilly landscape of Lorraine between Autrepierre and Verdenal, and flows straight southwards through its valley. At Domèvre Le Danube joins the Vezouze River (see top photo) which comes from the western slopes of the Vosges mountains.

The Vezouze then flows into the River Meurthe near Lunéville. It is from the latter river that the modern-day département of Meurthe-et-Moselle takes its name. Where is the former Principality of Lorraine...?

Lorraine landscape near the village of Autrepierre, near the source of 'Le Danube'.

The name of the French département is revealing of the rest of the hydrography. The Meurthe flows through Nancy, the former seat of the Duchy of Lorraine, where the late descendant of the Dukes of Lorraine, the Royal Hungarian Prince Otto of Habsburg-Lorraine, held his wedding in 1951. A few kilometres below the city, the Meurthe flows into the Moselle, which then flows northwards through the city of Metz, crossing the Franco-German language border and then the Franco-German border. The Moselle finally flows into the Rhine at Coblence.

Dammed section north of Verdenal.

Bridge over the 'Le Danube' in Verdenal.

The same bridge on a German postcard from the First World War.

Few people know, but after the expulsion of the Turks, not only Germans (Swabians, as they are commonly called in Hzngary) from Austrian territory arrived in Hungary, but also French people. Lorraine was not yet part of France in the mid-18th century, and the dukes here had very close links with the Austrian Empire. Frenchmen from Lorraine were also involved in the expulsion of the Turks, one of whom, Claudius Florimund de Mercy, later became governor of Banat, Southern Hungary. He played a major role in bringing the Swabians and the French from Lorraine downstream the Danube to Hungary, especially to Banat. Is it possible that this connection with Hungary is the reason for the name of the river's name in Verdenal? 

Image source: Eric Baude (http://www.danube-culture.org/un-danube-lorrain/)

05 January 2023

The Chronology of the Danube's Destruction

"What does a country mean to one who loves it? It means, for instance, the treasured scenes imbedded in our memories. And few parts are imbedded there so deeply as the Danube Bend and the Visegrád district. The sublime surface of the water peacefully turning, and alive with the play of light, comes almost up to our feet. We gaze and imbibe its stillness and motion, distance and proximity, and the floating hum of rare sounds of civilization that only deepen the silence.

A few years ago, a tongue of land started out towards the middle of the water, into the midst of the scene above Visegrád and Nagymaros. It makes a depressing sight. This is not the art of landscape at work, but preparations for unmistakably dismal industrial monuments of 20th century man: a concrete barrage, a concrete bridge, a concrete rim, a concrate bank and a concrete power plant. As the barrage worms its way towards the middle of the Danube, turning the hitherto unbroken surface into a muddy pool and robbing its nature of a scene of national value, a great many things have happened in Hungarian society. The developments have benn watched with aching hearts by tens of thousands of people... We must absorb a blow—the symbolic blow with which the barrage being built scars the surface of the Danube at Nagymaros.

Water, since time out mind, has symbolized the rich, ceaseless course of life, and when water dries up, it has always signified the ebbing of life. Water has played many tricks on bungling mankind during the course of history, and it will play more tricks today when a vast ecosystem is destroyed. For we have not yet closed within us the file on the barrage issue. It is not immaterial what kind of symbol Nagymaros comes to represent in our history."

Foreword by Gyula Kodolányi, April 1988.


Dunacsún 1992. X. 24. (EPA)

The title of the booklet published in two editions and in 12 languages by the Office of the Government Spokesman in 1993 is borrowed from the famous poem by Attila József. The aim of the booklet "By the Danube" was to draw the world's attention to the disadvantages and the negative environmental impacts of the Bős-Nagymaros barrage project. From this point of view, we are dealing with a propaganda publication, but propaganda can be carried out not only for bad but also for good purposes. The volumes contain only a small amount of text, and the authors have placed more emphasis on the visual material. After a foreword by the Hungarian author Gyula Kodolányi, the booklet presents the history of the power plant project and the main events of the civil resistance organised against in chronological order. They have not bothered much with presenting the parameters of the power plant, comparing the water level of the canal with the surrounding villages and landscape is the only such figure. 

A rich collection of 90 selected photos from the late 1980s and early 1990s is divided into three sections, the first of which shows the natural landscape. The focus is on the Danube bend, the landscape and scenery, islands, animals and plants, but there are also images of the Ipoly Valley and the Szigetköz. The second part shows the construction works (mainly earthworks) of the Nagymaros dam. It is likely to stir something in even the hardest-hearted pro-power plant engineers, or at least make them more understanding towards those who protest against the plant. The destroyed, industrious landscape alone is frightening enough, although the damage caused by the dam, the submerged islands, flooded archaeological sites, demolished holiday homes, planned flood protection dykes and sluices are, of course, not even visible. 

In the third part, pictures with a separate black frame show the Czechoslovakian construction site in Bős (Gabčíkovo)  and Dunacsún (Čunovo), where, in addition to earthworks, the power station was already being concreted and the Danube diverted. For the first image, I chose the photo that stayed with me as a small child, watching the huge reinforced concrete blocks fall into the river on TV with my grandfather. We cheered in vain for the river to destroy the dam being built, taking the blocks with it, but eventually the water began to run out, and in the end it barely seeped between the concrete and the crop stone. Then the water dried up in the Szigetköz branch system, leaving vast meanders filled with dead fish.

Although Nagymaros and the Danube bend were partially saved, the struggle is continuous. The plans of the Nagymaros (+Adony +Fajsz) power plants are constantly smouldering under the ash and flare up from time to time during periods of low water. Some things are constant, economic interests in the Danube bend currently override landscape and nature conservation interests. Whether it's new hotel investments or the huge gravel quarry planned for Pilismarót, where work was started in the past precisely because of the power plant investment in Nagymaros, in order to 'save' the gravel deposit from flooding. That is why these photos are important, so that we know what we have gained by not building the power plant in Nagymaros.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

October 1950

Professor Emil Mosonyi puts a proposal at a meeting of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to draw up a programme, to be realized jointly with Czechoslovakia, consisting of two hydroelectric power stations-Gabčíkovo and Nagymaros-for the purposes of energy production, navigation and flood protection.

April 18, 1953

A group chaired by Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Ernő Gerő reviews the preparatory operations. In Gerő's view, all the aims of the construction project could also be accomplished more cheaply without the power station.

July 30, 1958

The National Chief Directorate for Water Management submits a secret proposal to the Political Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party on joint Hungarian-Czechoslovakian utilization of hydroelectric power on the Danube Bend. 

August 5, 1958

The Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party Political Committee passes a resolution on the construction of the Nagymaros hydroelectric power station.

February 27, 1962

The National Planning Office and the Chief Directorate for Water Management inform the Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party Political Committee that the feasibility studies for the Nagymaros barrage project have been completed with Soviet assistance.

April 1963

Economic committees representing the two governments agree to the construction of the hydro system. Deadline 1975.

January-February 1974

The two governments endorse the definitive version of the programme for the construction.

September 15, 1977

János Kádár and Gustáv Husák, general secretaries of the two countries' communist parties, announce the decision to build the scheme.

September 16, 1977

Prime ministers Lubomír Strougal and György Lázár sign the international treaty on the construction. Deadline for completion: 1986-1990.

May 12-14, 1980

Three years after the conclusion of the inter-state treaty, members of Hungary's technical and scientific community have their first chance to criticize and express opposition to the project at a conference in Tatabánya.

September 22, 1980

The barrage system is discussed by 400 engineers meeting at the House of Technology in Budapest. Engineers György Hábel and István Molnár criticize the plan and vote against a draft recommendation to the government supporting the project.

December 31, 1980

The Hungarian government suspends work on the project.

November 1981

The periodical Valóság publishes János Vargha's article "Further and Further from Good" (Egyre távolabb a jótól - Dokumentumok a Gabčíkovo— Nagymarosi Vízlépcső-rendszer történetéből), criticising the investment.

October 10, 1983

Prime Ministers Strougal and Lázár reconfirm the original treaty and set a new deadline for completion: 1995.

December 20, 1983

The Presidium of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences comes out in support of suspending construction, but classifies its report top secret until an investigation has been made into the likely environmental damage.

January-February 1984

Public platform debates on the project begin. The Social Committee for the Danube draws up a petition calling for the suspension of construction work until a comprehensive study of its ecological effects has been made, and begins collecting signatures.

Spring-Summer 1984

The Danube Conservation Society is refused a permit to form. Numerous professional associations and university groups and the Hungarian Writers' Association are all dealing with the damaging effects of the hydro scheme.

September 1984

The Danube Circle forms, and decides to issue newsletters without a permit.

November 1984

The Danube Circle, having gathered some 10,000 signatures to copies of a petition, submits it to Parliament and the government. No response is recieved.

December 1984

Apart from the Austrian environmentalists, the Czechoslovak government also protests officially against a projected Danube hydro station at Hainburg. The Austrian government later abandons the scheme. 

May 1985

In general elections for the Hungarian Parliament, the public are permitted to put forward nominations for the first time. The problem of the hydro project features during the run-up to the elections.

June 21, 1985

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences holds a working meeting behind closed doors to discuss a proposal to halt the project made by nine independent experts: Mrs József Bozzay, Mihály Erdélyi, György Hábel, Sándor Jakab, Gyula Marót, István Molnár, Zalán Petneházy, Károly Perczel and János Tóth.

Autumn 1985

The European Parliament intervenes against the environmentally damaging project and anti-democratic harassment of the protesters against it.

December 1985

The Danube Circle receives the Right Livelihood Award, the so-called alternative Nobel Prize, in Stockholm, for its campaigning against the hydro scheme.

January 30, 1986

The group demanding a referendum on the Nagymaros project because of its environmental and economic damage reinforce their demand with 6,500 signatures and submit the petition to the Hungarian Presidential Council. The secretary of the Council politely refuses to accept it.

February 6, 1986

The Danube Circle is forced to abandon an "ecological walk" it has announced, because of threats from the police.

April 16, 1986

A political advertisement paid for by 30 Hungarian environmentalists appears in the Vienna paper Die Presse, protesting at the way Austrian firms are exploiting the lack of democracy in Hungary by providing credit and their services as technical contractors for the scheme in exchange for electric power.

May 1986

A Hungarian-Austrian credit agreement is concluded to finance the construction of the Nagymaros power station.

August 1987

The Czechoslovak and Hungarian governments represented by Prime Ministers Lubomír Strougal and Károly Grósz urge the scheme in a joint statement.

April 24, 1988

Hungarian environmentalists hold a protest march from Visegrád to Esztergom.

May 27, 1988

A demonstration is held outside the Austrian Embassy to protest against Austrian involvement in the hydro project.

July 21, 1988

Thirteen Danube conservation groups form the Nagymaros Committee to oppose construction of the barrage scheme.

September 4, 1988

The World Wildlife Fund and the Danube Circle hold a joint conference on the ecological effects of the project.

September 12, 1988

A demonstration by tens of thousands of people outside Parliament calls for a halt to the construction of Nagymaros.

October 3, 1988

Hungarian environmentalists form a human chain across the Budapest bridges, demanding a halt to construction.

October 6-7, 1988

The Hungarian Parliament holds a debate on the barrage scheme for the first time. The decision, with 19 votes against, is to continue construction but impose strict environmental-protection conditions.

October 30, 1988

A torchlight protest is held in Budapest, from Margaret Island to Parliament.

February 6, 1989

The deputy prime ministers of the two countries, Péter Medgyessy and Pavel Hrivnak, sign a protocol accelerating  the construction of the project.

February 27, 1989

The Nagymaros Committee submits to Parliament about 140,000 signatures calling for a referendum on the issue.

April 3, 1989

A demonstration by 15,000 people takes place at the Nagymaros construction site.

May 13, 1989

The Hungarian government declares a two-month moratorium on construction of the Nagymaros barrage, which is already 30% complete.

July 20, 1989

The moratorium is extended until October 31. The Hungarian government refuses to agree to further work on the Dunakiliti headwater reservoir and diversion of the Danube for the Gabčíkovo station.

August 18, 1989

The Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry, in a letter of protest, demands compensation of USD 2 billion for the delay to the scheme.

August 31, 1989

Czechoslovak Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec raises the prospect of unilateral diversion of the Danube. This is the first appearance of Variant C.

September 1, 1989

The Hungarian government's reply refers to the suspension of construction, warning that unilateral continuation of the project would bring a deterioration in relations.

October 31, 1989

The Hungarian Parliament passes a resolution on omitting the construction of the Nagymaros station and on seeking to renegotiate the 1977 treaty, with consideration for the ecological aspects, the reliable scientific findings and the national interest. (Some 95% of Hungary's surface water stocks enter from abroad).

February 3, 1990

Slovak, Austrian and Hungarian environmentalists hold a joint protest, forming a human chain between Bratislava and Gabčíkovo.

May 20, 1990

The new Hungarian government formed after the free elections presents its political programme, in which it declares on the basis of expert opinions that the project is faulty, and announces its intention of beginning negotiations with the new Czechoslovak government on rehabilitation of the sites and division of the costs of the damage caused.

July 23, 1991

The Slovak government decides that if the Hungarian side refuses its cooperation, it is possible temporarily to complete the barrage and power station exclusively on Czechoslovak soil (Variant C).

May 18, 1992

After two years of abortive negotiations, the Hungarian government abrogates the 1977 treaty.

October 17, 1992

Environmentalists make a symbolic start to demolishing the part of the Nagymaros barrage that was built.

October 23, 1992

Unilateral diversion of the Danube on Slovak territory into the artificial headwater channel above Gabčíkovo begins.

October 23, 1992

The Hungarian government appeals to the International Court in Hague for legal redress against the arbitrary alteration of the course of the Danube, which forms the frontier between the two countries, and against ecological aggression.

The nothern tip of the Szentendrei Island, 1986. (Ráfáel Csaba)

The citadel of Visegrádi, 1985. (Balaton József)

The Helembai Islands 1988. (Weress Kálmán)

Constructions at Nagymaros, 1989. (Asztalos Zoltán)

Visegrád, 1988. (Weress Kálmán)

Visegrád, 1988. (Weress Kálmán)

The Nagymaros desert 1989. (Weress Kálmán)

Nagymaros and Visegrád, 1992. (Weress Kálmán)

Bős, 1986 (Kisbenedek Attila)

Bős, 1986. (Balaton József)

Vajka, 1991 (Cseke Csilla)

02 November 2022

Marshpepper Park


Thus, as we approach November, the Égető island at Vác displays a picture of hopeless desolation. It is like an overgrown castle park under a gloomy sky, where the summer sunshine on the Danube has flown away as quickly as the once open water has been conquered by waist-high marshpepper. 

Marshpepper, the terror of grazing animals.

13 years ago, it was still possible to walk from the lower estuary to the dam in the adjacent branch of the Égető island. You needed wellingtons, though, because the wide muddy, watery bed was quite marshy. Since then, vegetation has completely taken over the dry riverbed, but even in recent times it was possible to walk through in the ankle-deep vegetation, interrupted in some places by patches of willow groves. By 2022, the situation had changed dramatically, with waist-high Persicaria hydropiper invading all but a few lower-lying open sections. 

The Marshpepper is an annual herb, but its seeds, which sprout at the end of October, will ensure a supply next year. Its own safety is guaranteed by the active ingredients (acids and essential oils) in its shoots; if consumed by grazing animals, it can cause intestinal inflammation and skin irritation. Its deep roots trap floodplain sediments, and its decaying stems further increase the organic matter content of the soil, providing a bed for successive plants. As of 2022, they completely cover the surface of the riverbed, wild boars no longer penetrate its rows, only the open areas concentrated in the three remaining watery depressions. The succession of the Égető branch is taking place at a rapid pace, before our very eyes, and the removal of the concrete dam blocking the branch is unlikely to reverse this process. Unless some drastic action is taken, such as dredging up the riverbed, we will find a willow forest here in 10 to 20 years. 

The southern tip of the Égető island (on the right)

Like a closing eye, vegetation closes around the remaining water surfaces.

The riverbed at 32 centimeters at the Váci gauge.
The water level in the main branch of the Danube is much lower.

Settlers, hungry for land waiting for the last reservations.

Traces of wild boars covered with water.

In most cases, it is no longer possible to tell from the picture where the riverbed ends and the island begins.

Horror vacui

In a few years, the willow soldiers of the eastern and western fronts will shake hands here.

I am just a spectator / An advocate documenting the loss, as an educated Swede would write while wandering in this Marshpepper Park. The Danube Islands blog has no other option but to follow the developments and present it to a wider audience. After all, this is how the landscape along the Danube is transformed, whether by embankment, damming or other human intervention. In such cases, nature can do no more than rush after the events, hoping to reach a state of near equilibrium, where these changes take place over centuries or millennia, rather than decades. 

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

13 October 2022

Danubian Island of the year 2022

This is the 10th time the Donauinseln blog announces the traditional poll for the Danubian Island of the year!

You can vote for the three nominated islands between 13th October and 30st December 2022.

Last year's winner: The Island of Mohács at Dunafalva with Roman-age ruins.

The aim of this contest is to focus attention on the often unknown islands of the Danube. Most of you probably visited the Seychelle Islands before any Danubian Island. This is the ninth poll, and we are happy we have started a tradition and more and more people will learn about these islands across the World.

The winners so far (you might noticed this is a Hungary-based blog):

2013. Kompkötő Island, Vác
2014. Helemba Island, Esztergom
2015. Kismarosi Island, Kismaros
2016. Szalki Island, Dunaújváros
2017. Csallóköz/Žitný ostrov, Slovakia
2018. Molnár Island, Soroksár, Budapest
2019. The Great Island of Rácalmás
2020. Kerekzátony Island, Ráckeve
2021. The Island of Mohács, Hungary

Once again this year, two islands have been selected by blog readers in the eleven-island qualifier. Esztergom's Prímás Island won by a huge margin, while the Gödi Island came a distant second. This year, the Danube Islands blog nominates the heavily regulated Szigetköz, located in NW Hungary.  

We present the candidates in alphabetical order, which is also the reverse order of the river's flowing direction:

The southern tip of the Gödi Island in 1929 (source: Havas Nelli)

Gödi Island, Alsógöd

The Gödi Island is known as Sand Island to locals and beachgoers from far and wide, even though the sandy beach covers only a small portion at its southern tip. It's important to know that it is a nature reserve, a far-flung exclave of the Danube-Ipoly National Park. River regulation had also connected this island to the coast, but the Danube ice and local hands have gradually dismantled the artificial barrier to water flow, so that the main branch water can still flow freely in its silted-up bed for part of the year. Much of it is covered by a wild floodplain forest, whose only natural enemy is the recently reintroduced beaver.

Braun Georg: A view on Esztergom, with the Prímás Island in the middle, 1595.

Prímás Island, Esztergom

It is quite hard to catch the essence of the Prímás Island on a photograph, so we decided to present it on a 1595 landscape to indicate how old and remarkable this island is. The northern side of the island, under the castle hill is urbanized with parks, bridges, recreational areas, and huge concrete buildings, while the other side towards Tát is a flood plain wilderness with unaccessible riverine forests. A famous feature of this 2.7 km long island is the reconstructed Maria Valeria bridge to Párkány/Stúrovo. Originally it was made of two islands, the Kutyaszorító and the Vízivárosi Island. Nowadays ist is named after the archbishops of Esztergom. The Prímás Island is a floodplain often flooded by the Danube.

High water in the Szigetköz. 2013. May 4th, Kisbodak, St. Christoph's bridge


The Szigetköz is the little brother of the Slovakian Csallóköz/Žitný ostrov, where the Danube deposits its sediment entering the Carpathian Basin. It is bordered on one side by the ever-changing riverine labyrinth of the main branch of the Danube to the northeast, and on the southwest by the once navigable Mosoni Danube. Today it is Hungary's largest island, although it is not a real island because the Mosoni-Duna was heavily regulated in the past 100 years. It stretches from Rajka to Vének. It is a densely populated island, with several settlements, including parts of Győr: Révfalu and Bácsa. The area between the flood protection embankment and the national border marked by the "Old" Danube is a landscape protection area.

The poll will be closed at noon 30th December 2022. The results will be available in the first post of the year 2023!

18 May 2022

Three sentences on Kovin


Szent Ábrahámtelke, now Ráckeve  as of autumn of 2020.

According to medieval Hungarian charters, after Smeredovo fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1439, a group of Serbians fleeing from the royal free town of Kevevára, an important Danube crossing point on the southern border, wandered for months around Pest and the Szentendre Island, until they finally settled in Szent Ábrahámtelke, in what is now Ráckeve, on the island of Csepel, Hungary, a place where a ferry crossed the Danube, similar to their former home.

The fort of Kovin and the Dunavac (source)

The formerly fortress of Keve, which was originally located on a Danubian Island, was not only threatened with destruction by the Turks (it was invaded in 1552 at the latest), but also by the condition of the southern walls of the fortress and, according to Frigyes Pesty's writing on the disappearing counties, by the Danube, or more precisely by its branch called the Dunavac, which was constantly being washed away: '"In 1879, a fall of more than a hundred metres occurred, and a considerable part of the fortress fell victim to the river again. On this occasion, several objects from the barbarian period are unearthed and news of the ancient antiquity of the settlement is brought to light."

Keve county in the Kingdom of Hungary (source: C. Tóth Norbert)

After the peace treaty of Passarowitz liberated Temesköz, now known as Banat, from Turkish rule, the world changed so much that the southern Hungarian counties, such as Keve County, like Bodrog County, were searched in vain by experts in the revival of the contemporary administration, who, based on military considerations, finally turned part of its territory into a military frontier, and its seat was no longer called Kevevára, but Kovin.

24 March 2022

The Belene Archipelago


Nature can create hell on Earth, but a volcano emerging from a cornfield is different from a man-made communist correctional labour camp on an island in the Danube. The Belene prison island in Bulgaria wants to forget the horrors of the communist era, in some ways too well underway, but the black stain of the past is probably indelible from the green island.

Marshes on the eastern part of Belene Island © Александър Иванов (source)

I first read about the history of Belene Island in Nick Thorpe's book "The Danube - A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest". Its history is quite unknown, but perhaps the story of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago can be paralleled. Belene Island is also unique in that it is the largest island in the Danube in Bulgaria and is located close to the southernmost point of the Danube. We are closer to reality when we talk about the Belene as an archipelago, because sandbar and island formation is still active in this stretch, not only in the main branch but also in the smaller Danube riverbeds. Here, the islands die a "natural death", attached to the larger islands or to the riverbanks. 

The Belene archipelago consists of a main island, also known as Persin (Персин) Island, joined to the north by Kitka (Китка) Island (elsewhere Golyama Barzina), with only a narrow Danube-branch marking the thinning boundary. By the shapes of the floodplain, we can discover several smaller islands hidden in this backwater. To the north of Kitka there is the beautifully named Milka (Милка), in this case not a chocolate, but a female name. Calvados (Калвадос) is the only island in the Danube to my knowledge that is named after a type of alcohol, Calvados being a distillate made from cider from northern France, which some local with a sense of humour must have edited Google maps. There are also a few unnamed Bulgarian islands that have merged with the Romanian or left bank, some that are real islands on the Romanian side of the fairway, and extensive bars in the Danube at lower water levels.

There are three other islands in the southern Danube arm, near the settlement of Belene, namely Magaritsa (Магареца), Belitsa or Štureca and the lowest downstream, Predela (Предела). They also have a descriptive name, and in the same order they are translated in English as Donkey-, Cricket- and -Frontier island. The latter takes its name from the fact that it lies on the border between the Bulgarian provinces of Pleven and Veliko Tarnovo.

The Belene archipelago covers an area of about 54 square kilometres, roughly the size of Szentendre Island in Hungary. It is 14 kilometres long as the crow flies, 16 kilometres according to river kilometres and has a maximum width of six kilometres. In contrast to Szentendre Island, the entire area of the Belene archipelago lies on the floodplain and is basically unsuitable for permanent human settlement.

The Belene Archipelago (edited from Googleearth)

Until the spring of 1949, Belene was a relatively poor village with a Catholic Bulgarian population. Its poverty was due to the fact that much of its land lay on the flood plain of the Danube, and not only the islands but also the land on the right bank was flooded almost every year. And the flooded land was not suitable for wheat, only for maize, so white bread was considered as a luxury. The population of Belene used the islands for floodplain farming, mainly for animal husbandry. In the spring, cows, pigs and sheep were driven across the Danube and then driven back to the village in the autumn. The islands provided timber for building and firewood, the low-lying wetlands were full of fish, and the extensive flower meadows were a great source of bee-keeping. This idyllic land use ceased overnight in May 1949. 

The pontoon bridge at Belene (source)

On May 1, 1949, just four days after the Bulgarian Interior Minister's decree approving the construction of the correctional labour camps, two officials appeared in Belene and the islands were effectively seized on behalf of the Interior Ministry. This involved the arrival of guards who drove the 20,000 livestock of the locals, hives and all, off the island at short notice. Until then, the communists had not had much support in the village, but sentiment reports this summer indicated that the dissatisfaction of the population was so great that the investment was in doubt. 

Later, as time went on, this animosity slowly faded as many of the villagers found work and a good living as camp employees. Among them were most of the guards and administrative staff. Some prison guard later became mayor of Belene.

The situational map of the Belene Island's forced labour camp sites (source)

The first group of inmates arrived on the island in the summer of 1949. The arrivals were difficult to keep secret, as the only pontoon bridge to the island was via the centre of Belene. The first 300 inmates were still living in branch-covered pits, and it was their job to build the camp and barracks. A wide variety of social groups were gathered here, including former members of parliament, members of opposition parties, prominent members of the middle classes, including the former mayor of Sofia, singers and church people of all denominations. There were intellectuals, military officers, kulaks, anarchists, monarchists, social democrats, agrarians and later even communists. In the 1950s, even listening to western music or dressing in western style was enough to get you into a forced labour camp. The only thing they all had in common was that they were all sent to Belene without a conviction. Initially, it was only possible to send someone to a correctional labour camp for six months, but in 1951 the duration was increased to three to seven years. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon to be imprisoned for 14 years in various Bulgarian forced labour camps, as Belene was not the only one, although it was the largest and longest-running. The other equally notorious place was Lovech, in the Balkan Mountains, but there were at least 40 other labour camps, although this is not an exact figure either, as there were temporary labour camps.

There were five camps scattered on Belene Island, marked with a Roman numbers. Site I is still in operation as a prison, since 1953. Currently, 500 prisoners are serving their sentences here. It is the closest to  Belene settlement, with a straight road leading from the pontoon bridge. What distinguished it from the work camp was that the prisoners were brought here by court order, which did not mean that there was no overleap between the camp and the prison. In 1953, when following the death of Stalin amnesty was granted to political prisoners sentenced to forced labour in Bulgaria, many were not released but transferred to the prison. In 1957, the supervision of the prison was transferred to the Ministry of Justice. Site No. II was the actual forced labour camp, enclosed by barbed wire, moats and watchtowers. It was far away, in the eastern part of the island, surrounded by marshes, 10 kilometres from Belene. Here political prisoners were overseen by guards with machine guns. Because of the island's great distances, these guards were mounted on horseback and equipped with whips. The prisoners here did hard physical labour, building dykes, draining swamps, agricultural work and deforestation.

According to camp residents' recollections, the barracks had no heating, there was no medical care and contact with the outside world was restricted. The camp was designed for 3,000 people, but between 1949 and 1953 a total of 12,000 people stayed there. If we take the whole period between 1949-1989, this number could reach 30,000. The food was most often diluted soup, with dry and/or mouldy bread, and sometimes the soup or tea was frozen in winter. Most died of starvation, freezing, lack of medical care and torture. According to survivors' recollections, the bodies of prisoners were sometimes fed to pigs, but flogging was a common punishment, after which the prisoners were tied up naked in a swampy place where the mosquitoes carried out the rest of the torture. The people who died on the island were buried in mass graves, but their location has not been discovered to date. 

Site IV was located on the island of Shturets, where the women prisoners were housed. Camps III and V were working places for prisoners, one was an agricultural facility and the other a brick factory. On Belene Island, a total of 2,000 hectares were farmed after the Danube floods were eliminated by a system of dykes built by forced labour.

Belene Site II. (source:  Krum Horozov)

Despite being the longest running and largest forced labour camp in Bulgaria, Belene was not permanently in use. Such camps operated in Bulgaria from the communist coup of 9 September 1944 until the fall of socialism, despite Bulgaria's public denial. Even at the very end, in the summer of 1989, people were interned in Bulgaria without trial. Belene was first operated as a labour camp from 1949 to 1953, with a 3-year break until 1956, but the Belene prison continued to receive detainees. In the autumn of 1956, after the failed October revolution in Hungary, the camp reopened and operated until 1959. According to memoirs, this period was the most brutal period of Belene. In 1959 the camp was closed and the prisoners were transferred to the quarry of the Lovech forced labour camp. However, the bodies of the victims who died there were transported back to Belene Island by trucks until 1962. There were two rounds a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. The bodies were sometimes dumped in the Danube, but most of them were buried in unmarked mass graves on the smaller islands. The simultaneous operation of the prison and the labour camp blurred the boundaries in the memory of the locals. Very few of those who recalled the events could tell the difference between the two, so the two institutions were often lumped together. 

Site II. reopened in 1985, when the national-communist government began forcibly assimilating the Turkish and Pomak minorities. You could get to Belene just by refusing to change your name to Bulgarian. Typically, resistance leaders were interned on the island. These measures lasted until the fall of state socialism, and when the borders were opened 300,000 Bulgarian Turks emigrated to Turkey.

The Belene Island memorial (source)

The fall of state socialism in Bulgaria should be put between quotation marks, because in 1990, in the first free elections, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor to the Communist Party, won an absolute majority in the new Parliament. Although there were trials against the people who supervised the forced labour camps, none of them were convicted. On the one hand, most of these people were no longer alive, some of them died during the trials, but they were not fully prosecuted because the official documents were mostly lost or destroyed. In other words, in the absence of official documents, it could be said that such camps never existed in Bulgaria. It is therefore difficult to come to terms with the past, based solely on the accounts of guards and prisoners. The documents have disappeared, there are no traces of old mass graves, and the survivors are slowly dying out. In Bulgaria, survivors feel that there is a lack of confrontation, that there is no institution to deal with the crimes of the communist period.

And on the Belene Island, nature is slowly reclaiming what was once taken away. The eastern half of the island has been a protected area since 2000 and is home to many bird species. Four of the island's former large marshes are being revitalised; the dykes, built up from the inmates' blood sweat and tears, are being dismantled by conservationists to allow the Danube to reclaim its floodplain. This is why the Belene archipelago is now known as both "Bulgaria's Dachau" and the "Pearl of the Danube". 

Monographies, images and memories on Belene for further reading:

  • https://beleneisland.org/history/?lang=en
  • https://www.businessinsider.com/my-visit-to-the-gulag-where-my-grandfather-was-tortured-2021-9
  • https://vagabond.bg/dark-tales-belene-3275
  • https://us4bg.org/news/belene-2019/
  • https://webcafe.bg/report/483133946-belene-syakash-nikoga-ne-e-bilo/gallery
  • https://belene.bg/en/tourism/belene-memorial-park/
  • Daniela Koleva: Belene: remembering the labour camp and the history of memory. 2012.
  • Lilia Topouzova: Reclaiming Memory: The History and Legacy of Concentration Camps in Communist Bulgaria. 2015.

19 February 2022

The lost Danubian park of Paks

There are several bad examples form riverside settlements, just like qays in Budapest, on how to isolate the inhabitants of a municipality from the Danube with transport infrastructure. On a smaller scale, this has happened elsewhere in Hungarian rural towns. In Paks, this is still a sore point, despite the fact that the investment in question, the construction of Route 6, took place seventy years ago. 

The opening ceremony at Paks, with the Soviet monument still standing on the left.
(Fortepan / UVATERV)

The above picture was taken sometime in late 1952, at the opening ceremony of the Paks section of Route 6. The exact date is uncertain and the event was not reported in the press of the time. The Tolnai Napló also only wrote on 2 November 1952 that "the workers of the Paks Concrete Road Construction Company collectively undertook to connect the Route 6 between Szekszárd and Budapest by 22 November, the time of the 3rd Hungarian Peace Congress." In fact, it is even possible that the pening ceremony was postponed to the following year. According to press reports, the entire route connecting Budapest with Pécs was opened in May 1953, and there were inauguration ceremonies in the villages concerned. The construction work did not go smoothly, with workers often absent without justification or arbitrarily leaving the roadworks, presumably because of the cruel and forced working conditions during the communist era. It was not only the road that was built, but also the ancillary facilities attached to it, such as bridges, overpasses and road crossings. These workers were locked up for months on end in education camps. According to local memories, the road reached Paks from the north, from Dunakömlőd, where the local section was completed in 1951.

Certain geographical conditions at Paks also made the road construction difficult. The Danube floodplain widens for several kilometres north of Paks towards Bölcske and south towards Fadd and Tolna. However, at Paks, the tilted loess blocks of the Mezőföld rise directly above the Danube, for example, at the Brickworks section, more than 60 metres above the zero level of the Danube, but also at the roman-age Lussonium fortress (later Bottyán fort) at Kömlőd, part of which was eroded laterally by the Danube. Paks owes its advantage over other settlements in the area mainly to its location directly on the Danube, which is free of flooding. At the same time, the steeply sloping edge of the Mezőföld and the erosion of the Imsós bend made transport along the Danube impossible. On older maps, the road to Kömlőd was marked on the loess plateau west of Malomhegy. The situation was improved by the cutting of the Imsós bend in 1841, which deprived Kömlőd of its Danube bank, but at the same time deprived the Danube of a hairpin bend particularly suitable for the formation of ice dams. 

The almost vertically sloping embankment and the huge cost of securing it was the reason why the Pusztaszabolcs-Paks railway line was not completed as originally planned as far as Tolna. The Paks terminus of the railway, which was opened in December 1896, was far north of the town centre, at the brickworks. 

At that time, the major transport line of Paks was the Deák Ferenc Street-Szent István tér-Dózsa György út-Tolnai út, which passed through the city centre. This artery was moved to the Danube bank in 1952. Route 6 was built from the Rókus Chapel to Kölesdi út on a new route, with a significant section of the road being built directly alongside the Danube. The southern section of the new route also required the construction of an embankment, as it crossed a low-lying area (around the cannery) where maps a few hundred years ago had indicated a lake and marsh. Paks was thus separated from the Danube by an increasingly busy road, which also served as a flood protection embankment, and the new road meant that the Danube park, which is immortalised on countless postcards, had to be demolished. Once the main community space of the city, the Danube Park was created from the land of János Flórián. The rose garden with its pergolas and rose beds was later joined by a Japanese garden, and in 1898, the year Queen Elizabeth was assassinated, a chestnut grove was planted along the Danube. All this was lost in the road construction, and only the Elizabeth Promenade was saved. 

In 1976 another investment made the connection of the village with the Danube more difficult. The construction of the nuclear power plant made it necessary to extend the railway line, abandoned in 1896, but only as far as the construction site. After 80 years, the construction of the railway resumed, parallel to Route 6 on the Danube side. The Pusztaszabolcs-Dunaújváros-Paks railway line also used to carry passengers, but the service has been closed since 2009.

In Paks, there is occasionally discussion of improving the city's connection to the Danube, but this is unlikely to happen without relocating the road and railway. We conclude this post with a look back at what life on the Danube was like in Paks before the road and railway were built, with its water park and boat mills. We use postcards from before 1945 and photos of Paks dated 1937 by János Kenedi from Fortepan. 

Paks, Danubian park, demolished during the construction of Route 6.

Danubian panorama at Paks. In 1861 there were 56 boat mills in operation.

The Haga Danube pool next to the chestnut grove.

The Danubian pool at Paks and seven boat mills.

Full house in the pool.

Paks, ship station. The first steamboat arrived in Paks in 1846.
The scheduled passenger traffic ceased in 1964, after this time the Fishing cooperative used it.

Paks, Danubian detail

Boat mills of Paks

The ship station.

The ship station from the different angle, whith the chesnut promenade.

The chestnut alley planted in memory of Queen Elizabeth.
This is all that remains of the Danube Park today.

The trees of the Elizabeth alley.

Steamboat on the Danube at Paks.

The ship station with the chesnut alley.

Twilight of the boat mills. (Fortepan / Kenedi János)

River crossing. (Fortepan / Kenedi János)

Women washing linen at the ship station. (Fortepan / Kenedi János)

On the bank of the great river. (Fortepan / Kenedi János)

Drying fishnets. (Fortepan / Kenedi János)

Waiting. (Fortepan / Kenedi János)