The bowels of Nyugati station in Budapest during the afternoon rush hour seem like a strange place to catch a whiff of Transylvania. The area where the metro line 3 escalators rise to one level below the surface is ringed with fast food dispensaries, newsstands and knick knack shops. During the late afternoon, the area is crowded with youth wasting time after school, stray weirdos who look worse than they smell and smiling, way to properly dressed Hungarian women (a rare and untrustworthy sight) promoting racks of evangelical religious literature. From time to time there are also busking musicians playing some strange instrument such as the accordion in a desperate effort to garner a handful of forints. On more than one occasion, I heard the strains of a heart wrenching tune playing on an invisible PA system wafting above this tumultuous den of humanity.
The song seemed to lower the usual clamor in this part of the station. While the song played I witnessed more than a few people singing the words to it. I would later discover the song was Szekely Himnusz, the national anthem for a people without a nation. The Szekelys are considered by many Hungarians to be the “true” or “original” Hungarians. Due to their remote homeland in southeastern Transylvania where they are an ethnic island surrounded by mountains and Romanians, they preserve a purity of culture that has been all but lost to most Hungarians. The Himnusz acts as a lyrical and musical reminder to all Hungarians of the Szekelys fight to hold onto their homeland and way of life.
Post-Partition Depression – A Sense Of Insecurity
The Hungarian tendency toward sadness and loss is legendary. These are a people who have been known to say, “I’m happy when I’m crying.”. A bitter sweetness has been the hallmark of many a Hungarian’s emotional state. This tends to manifest itself in sorrowful lamentations concerning Hungary’s fated history. To this end, the Szekely Himnusz is one of their most beloved tearjerkers. The anthem conjures up an obscure and beloved land on the far eastern frontiers of Transylvania. Due to the post World War I Treaty of Trianon it was lost and now looks to be gone forever. The failure to retain Szekely Land was especially wrenching for Hungarians, disconnecting the people they extol as proto-Hungarians from the mother country.
For Szekelys it was an even greater trauma. For over four hundred years, beginning in 1438, the Szekelys were part of the Union of Three Nations (along with the Hungarian nobility and Saxons) that were granted special privileges denied to the Vlachs (Romanians). During the latter half of the 19th century, the Szekely were subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as Hungarian speakers they still enjoyed rights that many other minority groups in the Hungarian portion of the empire could only dream about. That situation would be reversed by the first cataclysm of the 20th century.
It is said that war changes everything. That was certainly true when it came to World War I’s effect on Transylvania and Szekely Land. The Hungarian ruling class was upended by a massive upheaval that rearranged the powers that be to Romania’s favor. Transylvania went from being ruled for the benefit of Hungarians, Saxons and Szekely, to a constituent part of the Romanian nation. This was a profound shock to the system of all three groups, but its most profound effect was on the Szekely. They were more isolated and thus more vulnerable than any of the other groups. Not only did they find themselves part of Romania, but unlike many other Hungarians who were “stranded” in Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the Szekely were nowhere near the actual land borders of Hungary. A deep-rooted sense of insecurity developed from this traumatic separation.
An Expression of Grief – The Aftermath of War
A new organization was formed in Hungary by Szekelys to boost their national consciousness and cultivate a feeling of togetherness. The group, known as the Association of Szekely University and College Students (Székely Egyetemista és Főiskolai Hallgatók Egyesülete; SZEFHE), was dedicated to helping young Szekely men and women who had fled their homeland in the aftermath of war. In a sad irony, most of the organization’s leading figures were now living abroad in Budapest. They were blessed with the energy and fervor often found among idealistic students. To this end, they did everything they could to promote the Szekely cause, including the creation of what would eventually come to be known as the Szekely Himnusz, an anthem expressing their grief at what fate had befallen their homeland.
The Szekely Himnusz did not start out as a national anthem, instead it was born as a neo-romantic, proto-nationalist lament, penned as a poem by Gyorgy Csanady. Though of a literary persuasion, Csanady’s education was interrupted by the First World War. He spent four years fighting at the front. For his services he ended up wounded and found his homeland severed from the much smaller Hungarian state born in its aftermath. Csanady, like so many other young Szekelys, fled to Budapest where he completed a degree at the Academy of Commerce, though business was not to be his calling in life. Csanady lived to write, whether it be poems, plays or stories. In 1921, at the tender age of twenty-six, bereft of his homeland and hardened by years spent at the battlefront, Csanady wrote sixteen lines of verse that expressed both the contemporary as well as the historical frustrations, fears and anguish of the Szekely people.
A Geopolitical Roller Coaster Ride –The Szekelys Tragic Century
Csanady’s lines started with “Who knows where destiny takes us/On a rough road on a dark night”. That dark night would continue throughout much of the 20th century. When Csanady penned the lines, “Handful of Székely being crushed like the cliffs/On the sea storming from the battle of nations”, he was expressing uncanny foresight. Over the next seventy years, Szekely Land would be taken on a geopolitical roller coaster ride as the political pendulum swung from the rule of Greater Romania to Horthy’s irredentist Hungary to a bizarre autonomy within Stalinist Romania and then persecution under the vile Ceaucescu regime. The poem’s final line, “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!” was a plea for divine intervention to save the Szekely. From 1918 through 1989 there was no divine intervention forthcoming.