When it comes to museums and stately homes, I’m not one for do-agains. Other than Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, which I visited many times during my year in Oxford, I can count on one hand the places I’ve gone back to a second time, let alone a third. Once I’ve been, I’ve been. I will happily wait outside as my visitors wade through the history and experience all on offer, but I don’t usually have the bandwidth for a do-again. In Budapest, though, I’ve made an exception; I’ve found my Blenheim Palace in the Zwack Museum in Budapest’s IXth district, on Dandár utca 1.
Each time I visit, I learn something new. During each viewing of the short film that introduces Unicum to visitors, something different resonates. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that Unicum has its own music, a Foxtrot, composed in the 1930s and performed by the Holéczy vocal ensemble, extolling the medicinal virtues of the drink as a cure for an upset stomach.
And I hadn’t realised that the giant Unicum barrels were commandeered in WWII and used to build a temporary bridge over the Danube. One of the original barrels remains – dating back to 1937 and holding a massive 16 000 litres. I quite fancied that the barrels should have names. They seem to have a life and spirit of their own. We threw out some suggestions and Bóri, our guide, had the winner: ‘Why not call it Grandmother?’ This I found interesting because, apparently, I mispronounce it: my mangled version of Unicum sounds like unokám, which translates to ‘my grandchild’.
I was curious about the typical consumer. I’m told that the classic Unicum is a favourite of men of about 35 and older. Unicum Szilva, the happy product of a marketing promotion whereby slices of plum were handed out with shots of Unicum, has a younger fan base. And the latest addition to the Unicum family is Unicum Riserva may well covert me.
Unicum Riserva is doubly unique because it is aged not once but twice in two very different and special casks. The Unicum is aged first in the largest and oldest cask in the distillery which has been in the cellars for eighty years. Over the decades the wood has acquired a coating of what we call “black honey” which gives the Unicum still more depth and character. In the second phase the Unicum is put into a Tokaji Aszu cask where for years this legendary wine has aged in the cellars of Tokaji. Once the familiar bittersweet taste of Unicum encounters the sensuous sweetness of Tokaji, Unicum Riserva becomes mellower but at the same time spicy and fruity, with hints of dried apricots and an elusively herbal, minty taste like a cool breeze. Finally the 2007 vintage of Tokaji Aszu from the Dobogo Winery is blended into the Riserva to further enhance this uniquely unusual blend of flavours.
Of course, Unicum isn’t the only stave in the Zwack liquor barrel. Its apricot brandy has fans all over the world, the most famous perhaps being Edward, Prince of Wales, who, back in 1933, said that with soda, it is better than whisky and in tea, it is better than rum. I also hadn’t registered that there’s a Zwack Palinka Distillery in Kecskemét, but now that I know it’s there, it’s on my list of places to visit.
While walking through the gift shop, I spotted a book, a memoir of Peter Zwack (1927-2012), written by his wife, Anne: If you wear galoshes, you’re an émigré. Since my first viewing of the short, introductory biopic a number of years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the man and curious to know more about his life. The blurb described it as ‘the unique and compelling story of an émigré who lost everything except his galoshes and his accent and, in the new Hungary, was to win it all back’. Here was my opportunity.
What spare time I’ve had since then has been spent curled up on a chair reading. A Kindle convert, it’s been a while since I’ve read a real book with a hard cover and paper pages, but it seemed fitting – I don’t think Peter Zwack would have had much truck with electronic books, but I could be wrong. Written back in 2001 (and so a little dated), it’s an intriguing account of the life of a man who was not in ‘the least afraid of dying’ but didn’t ‘want not to live anymore’. It chronicles his rather privileged childhood and teens [a life that he himself described as consisting of ‘town houses and country mansions and an elegant lifestyle’] to the family’s flight to the USA in 1948 when the Communist regime nationalised the Unicum factory. At 22, after a month on Ellis Island, Peter Zwack found himself living in the Broncs in New York. In 1956, with his friend Tibor Eckhardt, he founded First Aid for Hungary, a charity to help Hungarian refugees of the 1956 Revolution. Indeed, the family (and the business) has always had a strong sense of corporate and social responsibility, perhaps another reason I’m drawn to him. He says that while his childhood made him ‘culturally and emotionally a European, America gave [him a] liberal viewpoint and positive outlook’. Not a bad mix.
Chapter after chapter I read and as I read, I learned. Peter Zwack was born a Catholic and educated by the Cistercians, as the family had converted to Catholicism in 1917. He didn’t realise he was Jewish until 1944 when Eichmann came to Hungary. Having to hide out from the Arrow Cross and wear a Yellow Star must have come as quite the shock. A fastidious diarist, the book features many of his own words, bringing his voice to life. [In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Anne Marshall Zwack says of her husband: ‘Something unwritten has never happened for him. If he loses a diary, he is distraught, because it means that he has lost a week of his life.’]
One account of how Lars Berg from the Swedish Embassy rescued the family when the Arrow Cross came calling gives a glimpse of the carpe diem man he would become.
There was no doubt in my mind that we were all going to die. I had been given a huge bar of chocolate as my ration to last me the rest of the war. I hadn’t eaten any of it. […] The Arrow Cross were stamping in front of us, needling Wunschi [his aunt Mitzi’s second husband], and I started to eat the whole thing right there. I thought it was the last bar of chocolate I’d ever see. The Arrow Cross used to round people up and march them to the banks of the Danube and shoot them there. They would tie them into groups like asparagus and then shoot one whose weight would drag the rest of them into the Danube where they’d die by drowning. It was a way of economising on bullets.
His marriage to Iris, with whom he had five children; their subsequent divorce; and his marriage to Anne, with whom he had two children, are described with just enough detail to make them real. The figure of a man who liked his own company better than that of his fellow man emerges. Minor details like the Russians stealing his father’s shoes (and never in pairs) and bayonetting their books, all add to the fascination. As does the account of his year as Hungarian Ambassador to the USA. For a man who believed that ‘only salesmen travel in a suit and tie’ the pomp and ceremony of diplomacy was something to be reckoned with. His ambassadorship was short-lived, though. The world wasn’t yet ready for him. It was such a shame because his speeches apparently inspired international companies to invest in Hungary and his appearances did a lot to dispell the myth of the Big Bad Wolf that lived in the Eastern Bloc.
As I read the book, I stopped occasionally to look up other articles on the web about Peter Zwack. And with each read, his place at my heavenly dinner table became more secure. In an interview with the New York Times in 1989, he said:
People think I showed faith in Hungary when not too many others did […] they had been fed this picture of a fat capitalist who smoked cigars and beat up the workers, and they saw me, a skinny guy who doesn’t smoke, wears beat-up clothes and behaves more like the workers than the Communist bosses did.
That same article said this about him:
He is steely enough to have survived, indeed thrived, for 40 years as an exile. He is bold and imaginative enough to have gambled, when the winds of change now blowing through Eastern Europe were the merest zephyr, on the ability of a capitalist emigre to come home at last and do business with the Communists he hated. A Role Model for Hungarians.
Anne Marshall Zwack met her husband on a blind date in Milan. She was a 26-year-old, well-travelled translator; he was a 44-year-old divorcé with five kids. His mother proposed to her, asking her if she’d like to marry her son. When Anne said yes, her future mother-in-law replied: ‘Then we’ll arrange it.’ And in Peter Zwack, the apple didn’t fall far from that particular tree.
As I read, I found myself wondering what Peter Zwack himself thought of the book. There’s very little by way of varnish and plenty by way of veracity. Anne Marshall Zwack writes with an objectivity threaded with love. It is, indeed, a compelling read. If you have an interest in post-War Hungary and its transition to capitalism or just fancy a peek at how the other half lived back in the day, it’s a bargain. Listed on Amazon for some serious money, you can pick up your copy at the museum shop for less than €2. And while you’re there, take a tour – get acquainted with Unicum and enjoy this unique little museum. Open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, Dandár utca 1.