January in the Olt River valley of Romania is not for the faint hearted. Temperatures plummet to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) or worse. Snow covers the ground for several months. The inhabitants spend much of their time huddling close to wood stoves or other sources of heat. Time spent outside is kept to a minimum. The days are short and the long cold nights continue for weeks on end. Every year there is one event that breaks this bone chilling monotony, the commemoration of the massacre at Madefalva, also known by its Latin name of Siculicidium. The massacre occurred in the dead of winter almost exactly 250 years ago when over 200 Szekelys –a Hungarian speaking ethnic group – including women and children were murdered by Habsburg Imperial forces. The memory of that fateful night has been burned into the collective conscious of the Szekely.
Guardians of the Eastern Frontier – Independence or Imperialism
The village of Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) lies in the heart of Szekelerland, a name given to the mountainous region of the Eastern Carpathians dominated by the Szekely people. Scholars have not been able to determine exactly where the Szekely came from, but they have inhabited the area since the Middle Ages. Whether or not they are ethnic Hungarians has been the source of countless studies. One branch of scholars believes they descended from Turkic peoples who were Magyarized, while another branch posits the theory that they were Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) settled along the frontier. Whatever the truth, the Szekely are a Hungarian speaking island, amidst an ocean of ethnic Romanians. Historically the Szekely enjoyed a privileged position in the region. They provided service to the Kingdom of Hungary as border guards on the eastern frontier. In return, they were given titles of nobility and allowed to administer their own affairs. They practiced self-government with their own courts and legislative bodies. Even during the Ottoman Turkish occupation across much of historic Hungary, when the Principality of Transylvania was a vassal state, the Szekelys were able to hold on to their privileges.
This began to change during the 18th century as the Habsburgs centralized control of the region. Habsburg rule tended towards absolutism. Increasing centralization took place during the long reign of Maria Theresa (1740 -1780). In Szekelerland, the Habsburg’s wanted to set up a border guard force that would be loyal to the crown. This was to include both Szekely and Romanian regiments. The recruitment was part voluntary/part compulsory. In response, the Szekely demanded that they keep their own leaders rather than come under the control of imperial officers. The Habsburg leadership would not hear of such a suggestion and were not willing to negotiate. Conversely, the Szekely were ferociously protective of their independence. They sought to limit outside influence in their affairs. The draft went forward, but was largely a failure. The Szekely that were drafted and reported had rifles issued to them. As resistance stiffened, they deserted and kept the weapons.
A Massacre & A Migration – The Consequences of Madefalva
Many of these Szekely made their way to Madefalva. The situation was turning into a test of Imperial control. Would the Habsburgs break the Szekely will? Could the Szekely hold on to the privileged existence they had enjoyed for centuries? On the snowy night of January 7, 1864 the Szekely were planning to meet in council at Madefalva to plan their next course of action. Unbeknownst to them, the Habsburgs were well aware of this meeting and planned to snuff out resistance before it turned into a full-fledged rebellion. In the frigid, snow covered town 1,300 Imperial forces struck swiftly, dealing a deadly blow to the unsuspecting Szekely. Over two hundred Szekely of all ages, from children to the elderly were murdered in a matter of hours. Thousands of Szekely fled into the mountains. They then left the region, traveling overland hundreds of kilometers to the east or south, eventually resettling in Moldavia or Bukovina. The Szekely leaders who were unable to elude capture suffered impeachment or worse. Resistance had been quelled.
In the ensuing months, the draft was successfully carried out. The Habsburgs were now masters of the Szekely or so it seemed. Much of the Szekely’s historical autonomy was ended. Imperial officials now exerted control over the Szekely judicial, educational and agricultural systems. They interfered in everything from real estate to marital transactions. Yet on a micro level the Szekely were able to retain many of their age old traditions, including election of their own local judiciary and governing officials as well as decisions on infrastructure improvements. The distance and remoteness of Szekely communities from their Habsburg overlords contributed to their continued ability to enjoy a degree of independence.
Miracle of the Miraculous – The Szekely Achievement
Each January hundreds of Szekely gather in Madefalva to remember their ancestors who were massacred by Habsburg troops in January of 1864. They gather at the SICVLICIDIVM monument set on the Veszhalom (Hill of Death), a mass grave where the murdered Szekely were buried. The monument contains an obelisk topped by the mythical Turul bird, an enduring symbol of the Hungarian origin myth. It is the Szekely adherence to tradition, the memory of their ancestors and a ferocious spirit of independence that has allowed them to endure the darker moments of their history. They have long since overcome the massacre at Maldefalva, but still pay solemn tribute to those who were murdered on that chill winter night.
This is one of many such incidents that have marked Szekely history. Despite the absolutism of the Habsburgs, despite a 20th century campaign of Romanization and despite the depredations committed against the Szekely by the notorious dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Szekely have endured. Paradoxically, the Szekely may have endured not despite, but because of the forces arrayed against them. These forces helped cultivate an exceedingly stubborn streak of independence that resisted ideology, modernity and tyranny. The continued existence of the Szekely, Szekerland and a unique culture is the most miraculous achievement of a miraculous people.