The history books will tell you much about the last phase of the Second World War in Europe. As winter faded into spring, slowly, inexorably the allied armies moved toward the final conquest of Germany in the first half of 1945. Ominous and horrible scenes began to unfold that were scarcely believable. Liberated concentration camps revealed the horrors of industrialized killing. The Soviet Army fought their way to the outskirts of Berlin and the once invincible Third Reich – which had only a few years before destroyed most of western Russia – now imploded in a matter of weeks. American and British forces raced to victory, but as their German foe disintegrated, a meeting with the Soviet Army loomed. The seeds of the coming Cold War were already being planted on the soil of a soon to be divided Europe. Yes history books will tell you much about this period, but they do not tell all.
What the History Books Do Not Tell You
Thousands of stories from the Second World War that have gone untold. Of soldiers and civilians, conqueror and conquered, clashing in places that have barely even been noticed. Of incidents that cannot even be found in the footnotes of the most obscure works on the war. Yet they are no less notable. The depths of depravity and suffering, hope and fear that permeated the waning days of the war cannot always be excavated from the archives. Sometimes the truth is stumbled upon, through happenstance or luck. It arrives in everyday settings, from people you would never assume. They are the real thing, flesh and blood, living, breathing history. Coming alive as they talk about the death and destruction they witnessed, the worry and fear of their experiences. Before your eyes they suddenly materialize, sitting on the back seat of a second class train car that just left the station at Simontornya for a return trip back in time.
The Unforgettable Forgettable
The town of Simontornya can be found in west central Hungary. It’s a quintessential Hungarian town. With a population of approximately 4,500 it is neither prosperous nor downtrodden. Its skyline is dominated by the obligatory Catholic and Reformist churches found in every Hungarian town. Nearby stands a plague column commemorating the disease which so often visited death on Hungary during the 18th century. The town’s most notable site is a Renaissance era castle which brings in a bit of tourist trade. The Sio River which flows through the town has been all but tamed. Its sluggish waters course through what looks more like a canal than a riverbed. An old leather factory, sits decaying on the riverbank.
Once the economic engine of the town, today it is a vacant shell. To the unaware it looks like another communist factory gone bad, but the leather works in Simontornya predated the socialist era. The rest of the town consists of small shops, eateries and houses of varying degrees of shape, size and color. The most notable aspect of the residences is the endless cacophony of sounds that emanates from dogs barking at no one in particular. The scenery around Simontornya is just like the town, nothing special. In essence Simontornya is – outside of its castle – utterly forgettable.
Spring Awakening, Fate Beckoning
This is deceiving because not so long ago Simontornya was caught in the throes of the last dying gasp of a force that had once threatened the world with tyranny. In its wake this tyranny had brought another tyranny to the heart of Europe. This second tyranny affected the livelihood of Hungarians for decades to come. The tyrannies were Nazi Fascism and Soviet Communism. Hungary was sacrificed – as so many nations in eastern Europe were – in the titanic struggle that had occurred all along the Eastern Front over four horrific years. In the late winter and early spring of 1945, Simontornya was at the epicenter of what was known as Operation Spring Awakening, the final German offensive of the war. It turned into a microcosm of what the entire German war effort in the east had been like throughout the war.
The Germans had grandiose plans. Their attack enjoyed initial success, but their forces were outnumbered and highly vulnerable. The Russian counterattack was swift, ferocious and decisive. And that analysis is basically a distillation of what the military history books will tell you. Yet the fighting around Simontornya was, like all battles of the Second World War, a fight among people. This is often forgotten in discussions of grand strategy and tactical minutia. The history of the Second World War, at its essence is about what happened to people. About the pain, suffering and sacrifice, whether in the cause of victory or bitter defeat. And Simontornya had all of this during the war, in its final, brutal months.
.0000007% – Twenty out of Twenty-Seven Million
Oddly Simontornya has little to commemorate what occurred in and around it during the latter stages of the war. There are no museums about the conflict or the offensive that consumed the town. The largest and most notable monument here is for the First World War. This is not very shocking, since World War I is portrayed as heroic in Hungary, even if tragically so. The monument to those who died in the Great War from the town is prominently situated in front of the Simontornya Varos Haza (Town Hall). By contrast, there is nothing of the sort for World War II. The first hint of the war I saw in the town was about 100 meters away from the railroad station. There is a Soviet War Memorial surrounded by about twenty headstones. Its situation between the train tracks and residences is not the most inviting, but is prominent enough to notice. Though on a very small scale, this monument is a stark reminder of the sacrifices the Soviets made here.
Today the Soviets are very much seen as the enemy in Hungary due to their military presence and enforcement of communism during the Cold War, they lost tens of thousands of soldiers in Hungary liberating it from the Nazis. The twenty graves in Simontornya represent an infinitesimal fraction (.0000007%) of the total Soviet war dead. These were among the last of those millions killed in the war. The silence and indifference in the Simontornya plot should not fool anyone as to the power, might and rage that accompanied the Soviet Army into Hungary.
On the train heading back from Simontornya to Budapest I learned about the war and the Soviet presence in Simontornya firsthand. That is a story to be told in my next post.