A Thing Of The Past – The Szekely Himnusz: “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!” (Part Two)

The Szekely Himnusz began as a poem, one that could be read as a cry for help. The kind of help the poet, Gyorgy Csanady, had in mind for the Szekelys was probably not that of the musical variety, but this was exactly the treatment his poem soon received. Not long after it was written, the poem was set to music by Csanady’s close friend and associate Kaliman Mihalik. Mihalik had much in common with Csanady. His schooling had been interrupted by several years of service at the front during the First World War. By war’s end he had been forced to flee Transylvania for Hungary where he continued his education as a medical student. Like Csanady, Mihalik’s academic background was quite different from what he would end up being remembered for. Though he completed studies to become a physician, he had a passion for musical composition and autonomy for the Szekelys. Mihalik set Csanady’s poem to an original musical score he composed.

Opening Lines of the Szekely Himnusz

Opening Lines of the Szekely Himnusz

Life After Wartime – Yearning To Be Free
The finished work was publicly performed in the spring of 1922, less than a year after the poem had first been written by Csanady. It was met with a warm reception. Unfortunately, Mihalik had contracted typhus, which he would succumb to only a few months after his work’s inaugural performance. The physician turned musician had been unable to save himself, but his musical score left the Szekely nation with a lasting impression that would long outlive its creator. Just before his death, an article written by Mihalik and edited by Csanady retitled the work Szekely Himnusz, a name that has stuck with it ever since. In a fitting tribute at Mihalik’s funeral, his closest friends sung the Szekely Himunusz at the side of his grave. The poem’s lyrical sense of longing had been made much more emotionally expressive with the addition of Mihalik’s musical composition. It was little wonder that it soon caught on with Szekelys and Hungarians who yearned to be connected in the same state once again.

At the same time, the Himnusz made Romanian nationalists’ blood boil. Any hint of Szekely nationalism, self-determination or autonomy was viewed with extreme skepticism. A potential fifth column for Hungarian revisionist efforts that looked to change the borders set by Trianon. Romania was struggling politically and economically during the inter-war years, as were all the newly enlarged nations that had gained territory at Hungary’s expense. Hungary was not doing much better. Trianon had become a national self-obsession for Hungarians that must be reversed at any cost. Meanwhile, Szekely Land suffered under corrupt and inefficient administration. This was not much different than the rest of Romania, but the Szekelys were a distinct people who had historically enjoyed many freedoms even during more difficult times. Szekely freedom was now a thing of the past, autonomy like democracy a distance memory by the mid-1920’s.

Frozen out - Winter in Szekely Land

Frozen out – Winter in Szekely Land (Credit: Albertistvan)

Acts of Oppression & Forms of Protest – The Szekelys Under Communism
The Szekelys waited and hoped to be rescued by their fellow ethnic kin further to the west. That is just what happened in 1940 when Hungary threatened war with Romania if they did not cede Transylvania. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi German government intervened to avert war between the two since both were German allies. The deal that was agreed upon handed northern Transylvania and Szekely Land back to Hungary. It was a deal with the devil, one that Hungarians and Szekelys would come to regret but one time and that would be continuously.  During World War II, the Szekely Himnusz enjoyed a resurgence. It became part of the mandatory curriculum in Hungarian schools. Ever so slowly, the Himnusz was gaining a popular following. This nationalistic turn did not last long, as the Soviet Red Army invaded and occupied Romania in 1944 while pursuing the Germans. Northern Transylvania was placed back under Romanian rule after the war ended and Romania was soon under communist rule, as was Hungary. This portended a worsening situation for the Szekelys.

On the surface things did not look so bad at first, as the Szekelys were given their own autonomous region, affording them the superficial trappings of freedom. The reality turned out be very different as Szekely Land was ruled by a thoroughly communist administration. The façade of autonomy was stripped away by Nicolae Ceauscesu in the late 1960’s. Soon, oppression of Szekelys based on their ethnic identity began. They made a convenient scapegoat for a communist government looking for someone to blame for a failing economy, wholesale shortages and a useful distraction from the sheer venality of Ceaucescu’s rule. During the long and increasingly tyrannical rule of the communists in Romania singing of the Szekely Himnusz was forbidden. Those caught singing it could be imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor in work camps. This ban had paradoxical consequences, with the Himnusz becoming more rather than less popular. It was an act of protest against the dictatorial Ceaucescu regime, a profession of both individual and collective identity by Szekelys.

Clouds on the horizon - Szekely Land

Clouds on the horizon – Szekely Land (Credit: Laslovarga)

The Last Line – A Tragic Transylvanian Tale
The fall of Ceaucescu and communism in Romania at the end of 1989 meant the Szekely were free to sing the Himnusz once again in public, but this was seen by many as a subversive act against Romanian rule. Calls for Szekely autonomy have been met with skepticism, feeding fears that Hungary might try to regain Transylvania. While nationalist tensions have waxed and waned over the last three decades, the Himnusz has continued to grow in popularity. To the point, that in 2009 it was made the official anthem of Szekely Land by the Municipal Assembly in Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Securisec). Many Hungarians, in faraway places such as Nyugati Station in Budapest where I first heard the Himnusz, know the anthem by heart. It speaks to the tragic history of the Szekelys and Historic Hungary.

A wound that can never be healed is soothed by those who sing the words to this song of sorrow. Such empathy is not shared by many Romanians who feel that what the Szekely are really seeking is independence. That singing the Himnusz is not an expression of ethnic pride, but another step on the slippery slope towards independence. It is highly doubtful that the Szekelys could ever regain independence, but that has never stopped them from yearning to be free in their ancient and historic homeland. They continue to remain ever faithful all the way to the Himnusz’s last line, “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!”


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