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AN ODE TO 1914

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 - Béla Zombory-Moldován, Peter Zombory-Moldovan

This memoir by Béla Zombory-Moldován is both elegiac and deeply affecting. It begins in late July 1914 at an Adriatic resort, where the author is celebrating with friends. This pleasant idyll is cruelly broken on July 28th, when word is received that war has been declared on Serbia. Zombory-Moldován at 29 is at the start of a career as a successful artist and illustrator and feels no euphoria or excitement about going back into the Austro-Hungarian Army (where, 5 years earlier, he had fulfilled his obligatory year of military service). After all, he is a man "filled with plans and the urge to create... I was born to create, and I loathe destruction of any kind."

Nevertheless, after a brief spell at home and exploring many of his usual haunts, Zombory-Moldován reports to his unit (the 31st Regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army) early in August and spends the remainder of the month in training. Due to his prior military experience, he is given officer rank (Ensign) and put in charge of one of the regiment's platoons. Zombory-Moldován's descriptions of the various personalities in his unit and the surrounding villages and landscape are fascinating, shedding considerable light on the dynamics of a polyglot army (Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Croats, Austrians) and a society now living on borrowed time. And indeed, time is running out. Zombory-Moldován's unit is on the march by early September to Galicia, the easternmost province of the country bordering Czarist Russia to fight the Russians (who had entered the war in support of its ally, Serbia). His introduction to combat is at once jarring, chaotic, and traumatic. Men and horses are cut down indiscriminately by heavy artillery fire and the staccato chatter of rifles and machine guns. Zombory-Moldován himself is wounded in the head, which temporarily affects some of his motor skills. He is lucky to avoid capture in the general retreat that is ordered by the high command.

Home for Zombory-Moldován, while welcome, is "unspeakably strange." His affliction, as the war went on, would acquire the term "shell shock" which soldiers on other fronts under constant shell fire would also have to endure. For the rest of the country as yet untouched by war, people try either to lead as much of a normal life as possible when it becomes clear to them, after the initial excitement of late July 1914, that the war would not be a quick one. Or others among the civilian populace (e.g. Zombory-Moldován's Uncle Béla, whom he visited during his convalescent leave) wax ever patriotic, believing in ultimate victory for the Empire.

Months pass and Zombory-Moldován remains restless and aimless. Before he is expected back by the army for an evaluation to re-assess his fitness for a return to active service, Zombory-Moldován travels by train to Fiume on the Adriatic Sea, where he stays with the Mauser family. The roar of the sea and the surrounding area are a soothing balm for Zombory-Moldován. He takes up painting again with relish. He is also joined some time later by his fellow artist and close friend Ervin.

The 3 weeks spent in Fiume bring joy and a renewed sense of inner peace for Zombory-Moldován. But as it begins to become clear that Italy may soon enter the war against its ally Austria-Hungary (the date is March 1915), he has to return home and back to reality. "It was time to say goodbye - or rather to part. I thanked [the Mausers] sincerely for all they had done to lift me up from my fallen state. Mama Mauser was moved to tears. So, a little, was I.

" 'Auf Wiedersehen am nachsten Winter. Im Weihnachten ist hier auch sehr schon.'

"I promised that I would.

"I had to rise early, as my train left Fiume in the morning. But the whole family had beaten me to it. I left the drawings I had done of the girls as a memento, and I had ordered two huge bouquets of roses, one for each day I had spent with them: red roses for Elsa [the youngest daughter], white ones for Miri. They put them in their windows, from where they waved to me as long as they could still see anything of my departing cab.

"Auf Wiedersehen.

"I stood by the window all the way to Lic. From here, a thousand meters up, I caught one last glimpse of the panorama of islands lost in cobalt blue and violet, and the endless sea."

I was wholly absorbed by this memoir, which comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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