The Szombathely I discovered on that early spring day was so calm and serene that I had trouble imagining war had ever touched the place. Mothers played with their children in Fo ter, kids were eating gelato and soon I was joining them. Young women texted on their phones or stared through stylish sunglasses up into a cloudless blue canopy of sky hovering above the triangular square. The blue sky was not unlike the one that was seen just after sunrise on the fateful morning of March 4th. The sky had not changed much since then, but Szombathely had. The process of recovery from the war was slow and arduous. The city had suffered more than others.
Civic Pride – A Potent Symbol Of Spiritual Force
Of the 52 urban areas in Hungary that were subjected to allied bombing raids, Szombathely ranked fifth in the amount of damage sustained by the city. Seven out of every ten buildings had been hit in the March 4th raid, an incredible figure when one considers that the raid lasted only 45 minutes. Over 300 were killed and 1,200 left homeless during that short amount of time. In addition, the city’s self-image had suffered a near mortal blow with the destruction suffered by its beloved cathedral. Whether or not it could be reconstructed was less a question of architectural skill, then one of will. Many felt it was a necessity. A newspaper article written a couple of years after the war stated that, “Szombathely…is the cathedral and the cathedral is Szombathely itself.” That may have been so, but there were obstacles of money, materials and politics that would have to be overcome. It might take years to complete reconstruction, but the cathedral was a potent symbol of both spiritual force and civic pride. A decision was soon made to clear the debris from its interior and begin the rebuilding process.
The day I visited Szombathely Cathedral both its interior and exterior looked to be in perfect order. Staring at its deceptively slender façade I saw no hint that any explosions had ever occurred there. The same was true of the Cathedral’s interior. I had no idea that the clean lines and smooth surfaces were due to a massive reconstruction carried out by the citizens of Szombathely beginning right after the war. The church was in immaculate condition, but that was because of an immaculate re-conception that started in June of 1945. Just three months after the ruinous bombing of the Cathedral, groups of citizens began the long and arduous task of clearing debris from the interior. Once the debris was cleared, reconstruction could begin in earnest.
An Immense Undertaking – Rebuilding History
Reconstruction would mean more than building upon what was left of the original structure following the bombing, it also meant deconstructing much of the façade that still existed. Columns and statues were carefully removed. The entire nave of the church had to be scaffolded. This was as daunting a task as any part of the work. It required 750 cubic meters of wood, just a little bit less than the 900 cubic meters of debris which had earlier been hauled out of the same interior. The roof, which had collapsed during the bombing, was resurfaced using 90,000 roofing tiles. The façade required 140,000 bricks which were created out of 11 railway cars worth of lime and cement. The scale of the project was immense, especially when placed in the proper context. Consider the fact that Szombathely was trying to rebuild, repair or restore hundreds of homes damaged by the bombing.
At the same time, the city’s citizens were undertaking the massive reconstruction of the Cathedral. Here was a triumph of determination and imagination over the forces of destruction and despair. Sweat equity was in ample supply, but funding was tight. The post-war Hungarian government was impoverished and was only able to provide very limited funding. Though the citizens of Szombathely were in desperate financial straits, they somehow managed to raise 80% of the near one million forint cost of the reconstruction. It is thought to be the largest reconstruction of a war damaged church in Hungarian history. And it succeeded beyond what anyone could have imagined who saw the smoldering city immediately after the bombing.
Failure To Replicate – The Greater Loss
On September 8, 1947 a hundred thousand citizens gathered together in Fo ter to hear the address of Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty, Hungary’s most famous Catholic prelate. Mindszenty dutifully carried out the Cathedral’s rededication. The ceremony took place just in time. This was only months before the church and all official religious activities in Hungary began to suffer unprecedented persecution. By the following year, Matyas Rakosi’s vile Stalinist regime had cracked down on public and private forms of religious expression. There is no way the reconstruction of Szombathely’s Cathedral would have been allowed to take place under the vice grip of Rakosi’s totalitarian rule. Anyone attempting such a thing would have been sentenced to busting rocks in the gulag. This turn of events meant that additional restoration work on the frescoes and paintings inside the Cathedral would have to wait.
Final restoration efforts would not be completed until over sixty years after the March 4th bombing occurred. Even then, certain artistic aspects could never be replicated. Only a trained art historian or someone who had visited the Cathedral prior to the bombing would have known what they were missing out on. I was oblivious to what had been lost. Sometimes not knowing makes it easier. The reconstruction was magnificent, but there were still limits. Franz Anton Maulbertsch could not be resurrected to repaint his frescoes on the cupola. His artistic work was priceless and losing it came at the highest cost. There were others in Szombathely who had lost much more. Family and friends whose lives would never be reconstructed. These were pieces of the past that could not be picked up and melded back together.
Precious & Precarious – Lost Art, Lost Lives
While the cathedral was rebuilt as a symbol of Szombathely’s survival, rebirth and renewal, the same could not be done for so many of it citizens. Life is precious, but also precarious. As an American I felt a vague connection to what had happened here. I was depressed by the bombing, but could not feel apologetic about the tactics or strategy that informed it. Defeating the German Army meant accepting a degree of collateral damage that would only be tolerated in a total war. Whether that collateral damage was lost art or lost lives hardly mattered to the war planners. It ultimately led to victory and as I discovered in Szombathely, a massive sense of loss. This was the paradox of one American bombing campaign in Hungary that has been all but forgotten, because it is so painful to remember.