Dreams Of Unsatisfied Desires – Ostffyasszonyfa: Where The Lonesome Whistle Blows

The train trip from Gyor to Sarvar brought an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Along a stretch of railway with woods on either side of the tracks the train began to slow.  Soon the woods gave way on one side of the tracks to a small grassy clearing. The train was going to stop, but the reason for stopping was not immediately apparent. The surrounding landscape was consumed by nature. As for the nearest village, it was several kilometers back. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a tiny station appeared on the right side of the train. This was the stopping point. The station was a small one-story affair with whitewashed walls, a fringe of yellow paint around each of its brown framed windows and the entire edifice was covered by a rather large roof. Entry points consisted of a couple of doors at different places.

The station did not look busy or even occupied. It looked more like a single-family dwelling that had been retrofitted for usage by the railway authorities. I half expected a couple of children to come running out the door followed by their mother. The improbable nature of the station’s appearance and location lent itself as much to dreams as it did reality. This station captured my imagination to the point that I then captured it in an image. An image that soon became one of my favorites, mainly because it was a canvas on which I could create distant dreams that I had yet to have the courage or means to pursue.  While gazing at this photo, I began to wonder about the strange name affixed to the front of it, Ostffyasszonyfa.

The station at Ostffyasszonfya

The station at Ostffyasszonfya

Lost In Translation – Ostffy Virgin Tree
Ostffyasszonyfa happens to be one of those bizarre place names that only the Hungarian language could have given to the world. Pronouncing it correctly is next to impossible, unless you are a native speaker or enjoy maddening linguistic exercises. The only way I could try to understand this fifteen-letter word was by breaking it into parts. Hungarian place names often consist of several different words stuck together. Through research I learned that the first third of it – Ostffy – was a family name. The Ostffy’s came into possession of the surrounding land and villages in the late Middle Ages. The latter half of the word – asszonfya – is either an homage to the Virgin Mary or to the property rights of some forgotten queen. There is also reference to a tree. Thus, a literal translation means Ostffy Virgin Tree. All of this I found hard to comprehend. Then again, I find almost everything about the Hungarian language unintelligible. Trying to translate Hungarian word for word leads to bizarre and incomprehensible meanings that only a Magyar (what Hungarians call themselves) has the intellect to properly decode.

I did later notice in my photo that there was a single leafless tree beside the station. Its barren branches cast a shadow on the white washed walls. I doubt this tree ever had anything to do with the village’s name, of which I have become increasingly fond. My photo made clear that there was an Ostffyasszonfya station, less clear was the village’s location. If the name was not confusing enough, the village’s location was yet another confusing matter. Ostffyasszonfya was on the edge of Lanka puszta, a settlement named for a nearby creek. There was also Nagysimonyi, which was the last village the train traveled through before it alighted at Ostffyasszonfya station. As for the mysterious whereabouts of Ostffyasszonfya, it was a bit off the beaten tracks. I later discovered that the railway line did not even go through the village, missing it by a couple of kilometers. Nonetheless, the name, the station, the train’s momentary pause, was call captured in my photo. A stimulus for dreams of unsatisfied desires.

A Repository Of Memory – Never Noticed Necessities
Ostffyasszonfya turned into more than a way station. For me, it became a starting point for grand projects stimulated by an overactive mind. Later I  began to wonder what would have happened if I had gotten off the train to spend more time photographing and exploring the station. Suddenly I wanted to take photos of every similar sized or smaller train station in Hungary. This could have taken the form of a photographic album in book form, acting as a repository of memory to commemorate what might soon be lost. Or perhaps I would have written an encyclopedic volume full of trivial information about these tiny wonders of transport. They were symbols of a bygone era, never noticed necessities of village life and outlets to a larger world for the local villagers.

To strangers such as myself, these stations were windows into a Hungary that scarcely existed to insiders or outsiders. This station could not be found in the most comprehensive guidebooks or for that matter, located by many Hungarians. They were a fading yet integral part of daily life that was one day destined to die without anyone much noticing or caring, except those who had come to rely on them.  The train station at Ostffyasszonfya reminded me of those old rural post offices – some active, some abandoned – that I had come across while traveling through the Great Plains of the United States. Every so often the postal service will do a round of closings. Suddenly community support rallies with public meetings and vehement protests taking place. These towns know that if they lose their post office, their continued existence is in question. I would bet the same thing happens in Hungary. For a century and a half Hungary’s rural areas have been losing population. Losing rail or bus service is tantamount to a slow death penalty. A railroad station is a lifeline, a tangible link to the rest of Hungary.

Abandoned Zugligeti Railway Station in Hungary

Abandoned Zugligeti Railway Station in Hungary (Credit: Lea Simon)

Irreplaceable Lifelines – Along Remote & Forgotten Sidings
The true value of Ostffyasszonfya’s station is that it helps keep the village and surrounding settlements alive. I have seen similar sized stations abandoned at many remote sidings in Hungary. The communities they serviced lost an irreplaceable lifeline. These shuttered stations are often quite photogenic, undergrowth has become overgrowth as vines and weeds slowly consume them. The walls are cracked, the roofs caving in as they grow ever closer to total collapse. Up to this point, Ostffyasszonfya’s station has avoided such a fate. The future of rural stations in Hungary looks uncertain, but I fervently hope they remain. Villagers need stations like Ostffyasszonfya’s as an outlet to the wider world, just as much I need it to dream.




A Triumph of Determination – A Cathedral Restored, A People Unreconstructed: The Bombing Of Szombathely (Part 3)

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.

Szombathely Cathedral in 1961

Szombathely Cathedral in 1961 (Credit: Gyula Nagy/fortepan.hu)

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.

Immaculate Reconstruction - Interior of Szombathely Cathedral

Immaculate Reconstruction – Interior of Szombathely Cathedral (Credit: Daniel Kovacs)

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.

An Invitation - Szombathely Cathedral

An Invitation – Szombathely Cathedral

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.


The Ghosts Of A Conflict – The Bombing Of Szombathely: Nothing But Memories (Part Two)

The American bombing of Szombathely started with the Cathedral, but certainly did not end there. The American war planners had also targeted the train station and railroad yards, the place I had first entered the city that day. Upon my arrival I was blissfully unaware of American bombers striking Szombathely. The ghosts of the conflict had been swept away by reconstruction, denial and historical amnesia. Details could only be discovered by searching through the pages of history books written in a language I could not possibly understand or by delving deep into the memories of people who may or may not not care to recall the traumas they had suffered at the hands of my country. My other hope was that information might be found on the internet which would illuminate that dark day in the history of Szombathely. I did not feel any guilt about American bombers striking the city since their overarching goal was to destroy the Nazis, but it still felt odd to walk upon pavements that had once been blown apart by American military might.

Szombathely Cathedral - after the bombing

Szombathely Cathedral – after the bombing (Credit: Cathedral archives)

Collateral Damage – Those Who Wait
The main targets in Szombathely were the marshaling yards which helped to supply the German Army’s increasingly desperate fight against the Red Army. Bombing the Cathedral was symbolic, but hitting the railroad lines and marshalling yards was crucial to destroying the German war effort. Thus, the American bombers brought the sheer weight of their overwhelming air power to bear on these targets. Because targeting was imprecise and highly dependent on a range of external factors this led to a great deal of collateral damage. That damage was largely caused by three runs made by Bomber Groups after the initial one that struck the cathedral. Less than a half hour after the first bombs struck the cathedral, another twenty-five B-24s unleashed their payloads on the south end of the marshaling yards. Eighteen minutes later, twenty-eight planes took aim once again at the marshaling yards. The final wave occurred just five minutes later as thirty-nine aircraft let loose another three hundred bombs. There were several hits on the main square (Fo ter) and civilian areas during this run.

In less than an hour, over 200 tons of high explosive bombs had been dropped on the city. The attack had come as somewhat of a surprise. Several weeks had passed since the last bombardment. A false sense of security had developed among many of Szombathely’s citizens. Some ignored the air raid sirens, only to run for cover when the bombers descended upon the city. While shelters might protect them from explosions, nothing could protect these people from the dreadful fear that accompanied the lead up to each explosion. There would be a tortuous wait for the next impact, followed by a seismic shift as the ground quivered violently from another impact. Protective walls began to buckle from the sheer force of each explosion. A shelter might just as easily collapse and become a concrete tomb. This was not hell on earth, as much as it was hell under the earth. A living hell that those who survived would never forget. Then suddenly the storm above was over, now a reckoning of the damage would begin.

Bomb damage inside Szombathely Cathedral

Bomb damage inside Szombathely Cathedral (Credit: Cathedral archives)

Shaken To The Core – Searing Images
Smoke billowed up over the city as residents surfaced from shelters, cellars and their other hiding places. They were shaken by the scene before them.  Destruction in the Belvaros (City Center) was widespread. The Cathedral, Town Hall and all the buildings surrounding the Post Office, among many others, were in ruin. Over half a century later, accounts of those who survived the bombing and what they had seen that unforgettable day appeared in Szombathely’s local newspaper, Vas Nepe (Iron People). I discovered translations for several of these articles on the internet. Reading them made it clear that the horrific scenes from that day had become searing memories. There was the man who had been out in the city when the bombing began. By the time he rushed back home, his wife and three daughters had been killed. The person who recalled this story added another tragic detail, no one had ever seen the man smile again after that day. There was the mother with tears in her eyes after the death of her daughter. All that we learn of the girl was that she had been a cashier at a local bookstore. At least we know that much, others knew her as something more. Tragically the girl and her story have been lost to history.

There was the engagement party that turned deadly, as a soon to be bride and her parents were killed by the bombing. The groom was left with nothing but memories, his lost love never to be forgotten, by him or the man who recalled this scene exactly fifty-five years later. A woman remembered how everything her parents had worked to save throughout their lives, a house full of intensely personal possessions, was wiped away in a mere thirty seconds. This same man came across an authority figure in the rubble, not that of a soldier or policeman, but his elementary school principal from childhood. War does not discriminate, the priestly and the powerful were just as likely as the average apartment dweller to have died. Another young man who was working on the latest edition of the soon to be defunct Hungarian military newspaper was reduced to hiding under a typesetting machine. A deluge of glass and soot convinced him to make a sprint to a nearby shelter. While running he could hear the deafening roar of another bombardment in progress. He barely made it to the shelter in time where he encountered people praying, screaming and crying.

The Unsaved – Pulled From The Rubble
These were just a few of the stories concerning the hundreds who lost their lives on a day that started out sunny, celebratory and full of promise. No one in Szombathely could have expected, let alone believed, that terror would rain down from the skies with such swift and sure destruction. By the time citizens began to sift through the carnage a light snow had begun to fall. This provided a natural shroud of death over the hellish scene, just as debris provided an artificial one. Victims were pulled from the rubble and bodies laid out along the sidewalks of Szombathely. The bombers were headed back to their respective bases. In a few days they would do the same thing again to a different city. The war would end soon. Unfortunately, it had not ended soon enough to save Szombathely.

Click here for: A Triumph of Determination – A Cathedral Restored, A People Unreconstructed: The Bombing Of Szombathely (Part 3)

American Shadows  – The Bombing Of Szombathely: Explosive Effects (Part One)

Walking around Szombathely I fell under the mad impression that I was the first American to discover this wonderful little city. That later in life I would be the one reporting back to a blissfully ignorant world on its wonders, exposing all of its secrets to the masses. Such micro-megalomania made me feel my visit was much more important than it actually was. This self-indulgent spirit of personal revelry would not survive first contact with reality. In truth, I was a lone American traveler following the advice of a guidebook. I was being led around by a handful of printed pages to sights that many would find interesting, but few of my countrymen would ever visit. For that matter, I wondered if any of my countrymen had ever visited Szombathely.

This was a ridiculous conceit. Surely Americans in foreign exchange programs had come here, as well as Americans of Hungarian descent whose ancestors had headed across the Atlantic a century ago. They would likely have visited to finally see the distant land where not so distant relatives had come from. Nonetheless, in my mind I was the only American to come here. This foolish pride did not last very long, as I soon discovered that Americans had affected the history of Szombathely much more than I ever could have imagined.

Szombathely Cathedral

Szombathely Cathedral today

A Journey Back In Time –Hell On A Heavenly Day
It was only a short phrase within a single sentence of The Rough Guide To Hungary, but that was all I needed to start a journey backward in time that led to April 4th, 1945. The sentence stated, “Unfortunately, its (Szombathely Cathedral) exuberant frescoes by Maulbertsch were destroyed by US bombing in the last months of World War II and painstaking structural restoration has stopped short of recreating his work.” The phrase “destroyed by US bombing in the last months of World War II” caught my interest. This was my initial introduction to the Cathedral, a deceivingly slender looking Baroque-Classicist styled multi-story structure that stood on the same spot where a Roman forum was once located. Christianity in Szombathely had been taken to new heights with the construction of this cathedral in the late 18th and early 19th century. The original version of the Cathedral had stood up until the final months of World War II, when all hell broke loose on what had started out as a heavenly day.

By all accounts the first Sunday of March 1945 began cloudless and sunny in Szombathely. The air had a bit of winter nip to it, but the weather was beautiful unlike the political climate. World War II was in its final furious phase. By this point in the war Szombathley had suffered both human and structural damage.  The year before, the entire Jewish population of the city had been deported to concentration camps. The city had also been struck by multiple Allied bombing raids. By the end of the war, the total number of raids would number eighteen, but the one that would be most remembered occurred on March 4th. This was a special day for the city’s large Catholic community. Nearly six years to the day, Pope Pius XII’s coronation had taken place. Now the Szombathely Cathedral was hosting hundreds at “A Celebration of the Anniversary of the Pope Pius XII.” A High Mass presided over by a Bishop would take place at 10:00 a.m. The day would turn out to be a memorable one, but for all the wrong reasons.

Szombathely Cathedral in 1930

Szombathely Cathedral in 1930 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Ashes To Dust – The Sirens Call
Little did the citizens of Szombathely suspect that while the mass was taking place, American bomber squadrons from the 15th Air Force were flying toward the city. They had left their base in Italy earlier that morning, flying over the Slovenian portion of northern Yugoslavia. As they got closer to Szombathely, the weather in the area had begun to worsen. Clouds and haze moved in over the city, making the bombers job much more difficult when trying to locate targets. Their main target was Szombathely’s railroad marshalling yards. Multiple rail lines ran in and out of Szombathely making it an important supply depot for what was left of the German Army. With less than stellar visual conditions for finding targets, major landmarks such as the Cathedral would be fair game for the bombers.

At twenty minutes before noon, the mass came to an end. Five minutes later, just as the congregation was filtering out of the Cathedral, air raid sirens began to sound. The citizens of Szombathely quickly made their way to cellars and underground shelters. They were given plenty of lead time to seek shelter. Nearly an hour elapsed from when the sirens first sounded and the bombers appeared over the city. At exactly 12:42 p.m. the 485th bomb group descended on the city. Twenty-six B-24 Bombers dropped their payloads which consisted of 208 bombs with 500 pounds of high explosives. This was the first of four runs over the city by bomber groups and the only one that managed to damage the cathedral. In the cathedral’s case, one was plenty enough.

East facade of Szombathely Cathedral - post-bombing

East facade of Szombathely Cathedral – post-bombing (Credit: Szombathely Cathedral archives)

In the Matter Of A Few Moments – Crashing Down
Eyewitness accounts, along with after action reports from those who surveyed the damage, suggest that at least three and likely four bombs struck the cathedral. The damage was incredible. The cathedral’s roof was blown upward and out, its nave suffered irreparable damage. At least two of the bombs detonated between initial impact and prior to hitting the ground.  These exploded inside the church, sending debris flying in all directions and reducing much of the cathedral’s interior to rubble. The cupola with Franz Anton Maulbertsch’s wonderful frescoes was obliterated. Szombathely’s beautiful cathedral that had taken twenty-one years to complete was turned into a half-ruin in a matter of a few moments.

Structural damage was considerable, but human casualties at the Cathedral were miraculously low.  Much of the reason for this was that the Mass had ended almost exactly an hour prior to when the bombing began. Almost everyone had left the immediate area in and around the cathedral. Two people were still inside when the bombs struck, this included a woman who was praying at a small pulpit in the nave, both somehow managed to survive. In the aftermath, the woman was heard crying for help from beneath piles of rubble and debris. She was fortunate to be rescued, escaping with multiple bone fractures. Others in Szombathely were not so lucky, as more bombers began to take aim at targets in the city.

Click here for: The Ghosts Of A Conflict – The Bombing Of Szombathely: Nothing But Memories (Part Two)

* Visit the excellent March 4,1945 Szombathely Cathedral Project website for more information.


A Story of Surprises- James Joyce & Szombathely: Walking Through Walls

Two things surprised me in Szombathely, both of which were people. After my arrival on a noon time train from Sarvar, I exited the elegant turn of the 20th century station which was an inspired confection from the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The station was coated in a rich tone of vanilla, topped by a couple of turrets above a grand entrance way. Beyond the station I was stopped by my own confusion. I had no idea which way to walk in order to find the town center. I thumbed through my guidebook until I found the map of Szombathely which I used to get my bearings. With my focus on the map rather than the immediate surroundings, I was suddenly startled by a person who seemed to have come out of nowhere. A woman inserted her head just above my arm, looked at the map and said, “Can I help you?” Her dark eyes betrayed someone with less than noble intentions. Standing behind her was a man whose height was just above the level of a dwarf. Shaken by this intrusion I firmly stated, “No!” I closed the book and began walking in what I believed was the general direction of the city center. The man and woman followed closely behind me for the next five minutes, but my brisk pace and no-nonsense manner made them give up the chase. When I finally stopped to catch my breath, they were nowhere to be seen.

A High Opinion - Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

A High Opinion – Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

Making The Most Of It – Striking A Pose
First impressions can mean everything. The fact that I had been approached by strangers in Szombathely, with what I assumed to be ill intent, colored my initial impression of the city. It was hard for me to shake this feeling as I walked into the city center. The main square (Fo ter) went some way in ameliorating my concern. The uniquely shaped triangular square was expansive and spacious, a partly successful attempt at the spectacular. This square was out of all proportion to most of Szombathely, which was just a small provincial city on the western frontiers of Hungary. It was obvious that the residents of Szombathely had a high opinion of their city and wanted visitors to feel the same. The baroque, classicist and eclectically styled houses were covered with a diverse array of brightly painted facades beaming radiant in the early afternoon sunlight. My mood was becoming as bright as the sunny disposition of Szombathely’s core.

Then, as before, I was surprised once again by a person, but this one was not alive, at least not in the living and breathing sense. A figure from the world of literature who had long since been dead confronted me at 40/41 Fo ter. This was the Irish writer James Joyce, who was in the process of walking halfway through a wall. He had been improbably brought back to life in statuesque form as the ultimate wallflower. Joyce was resting his right hand on a walking stick while wearing his trademark spectacles and wide brimmed hat. His mustache was properly groomed, coat and tie in proper order. Joyce’s face managed an expression of both seriousness and sadness, while the statue was as notable for its portrayal of Joyce as his pose. Walking through a wall is an expression of magical powers, an unexplainable and incomprehensible phenomenon. Perhaps this was a nod to Joyce’s writing, which is praised by critics and unintelligible to the average person.  I have no idea if that was what the sculptor of this Joyce statue intended, but that was my own personal interpretation.

Ulysses in Hungary - James Joyce in Szombathely

Ulysses in Hungary – James Joyce in Szombathely

Back Story – The Search For Deeper Meaning
This search for deeper meaning did not answer my main question regarding the statue. What was a likeness of James Joyce doing in Szombathely in the first place? From what I discovered through research, Joyce had never visited the city, but was nonetheless aware of it. One of the central characters in his stream of consciousness novel Ulysses happens to be from Szombathely. The character is Rudolf Virag, father of Leopold Bloom the novel’s central character. According to the narrative, Virag, originally a Hungarian Jew, immigrated to Ireland. He is said to have later killed himself, leaving his son without a father. Did a Rudolf Virag ever live in Szombathely? The answer I found turned out to be ambiguous. There was no specific Rudolf Virag known to live at 40/41 on Fo ter, but there was a family by the name of Blum at that residence during the 19th century. In Hungarian Virag means flower. In the novel, Rudolf Virag had changed his last name from Virag to Bloom when after emigrating from Hungary to Ireland.  Why did Joyce select Szombathely as the hometown of Rudolf Virag? There are many different theories.

One of the more intriguing credits Joyce’s genius at word play. The pronunciation of Szombathely (Sombattay) sounds like “somebody”, thus it might have been a light-hearted play on words. The most plausible theory is that Joyce was naming it after a close Jewish friend, the scholar Marino De Szombathely. They became acquainted after Joyce and his wife went into self-imposed exile at Trieste (now located in Italy), which was one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main ports on the Adriatic Sea prior to World War I. Joyce may have never made it to Szombathely, but he had a great deal of experience with multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary. For over a decade he taught English, first in the port city of Pula (now located in Croatia) and then in Trieste. He would have come into contact with many Jewish citizens of the empire. Joyce also would have learned about the submerged nationalism of the many ethnic groups advocating for greater representation in the empire. This would have chimed with the Irish nationalism that he knew so well.

Home of the Blum Family - Szombathely

Home of the Blum Family – Szombathely (Credit: Pan Peter)

The Life Of Exiles – Ulysses in Hungary
James Joyce’s experiences while living in Austria-Hungary informed character details and back stories in Ulysses. While Hungary was peripheral to the story, it nonetheless played a part in perhaps the greatest modern novel ever written. Rudolf Virag was a self-imposed exile from Hungary and his creator was a self-imposed exile to Austria-Hungary. Joyce thought enough about Hungary to give Szombathely a minor role in the book, one that the city has repaid with the statue of him walking right out of a wall and nearly into me. This was a shocking surprise, one of several that afternoon in Szombathely.

Click here for: American Shadows – The Bombing of Szombathely: Explosive Effects (Part One)


In The Shadow of Szombathely – Savaria: What Once Was & Will Never Be Again

It is said that Szombathely is the oldest town in Hungary. There is both truth and fallacy in that statement. Truth in that the earliest predecessor of Szombathely, known as Savaria, was founded in 45 AD, before any other town in what would eventually become Hungary. In the first century AD Hungary did not exist, the Magyars were eight and a half centuries away from occupying the Carpathian Basin. Proto-Magyars were lost in space, in effect roaming the vast steppes of Eurasia. Meanwhile Pax Romana was conquering more and more territory. The Romans occupied, created and administered a territory known as Pannonia Superior taken from land in the northern Balkans, Austria and western Hungary. Savaria became the provincial capital. Little did anyone realize, or care at the time, but this would end up being the first known town in Hungary.

There is also fallacy in declaring Savaria as the first and oldest town in Hungary because by the 890’s, when Hungarians first appeared in the area, Savaria was a mere shell of its former self. A settlement filled with Roman ruins, reminders of the town’s once exalted status. Its former self, swept away by human and natural disaster. There were Hun, Goth and Longobard invasions. In 456 AD a coup de grace was delivered by an earthquake that caused the city’s sturdier structures to crumble. The ruined buildings were transformed into prime archaeological sites from antiquity, a glorious era for the city that modern Szombathely has never been able to match. That lost prominence can be gleaned from a smattering of notable Roman sites, one of which I went to visit.

Ancient tablet - Listing Roman citizens of Savaria

Ancient tablet – Listing Roman citizens of Savaria (Credit: PanPeter12)

Emperors & Saints Of Savaria – The Great Unknowns
Roman Savaria stimulated my curiosity because it maintains a notable place in history. Savaria was a substantial city by Roman provincial standards, placed along the Amber Road trade route which stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. Several Roman Emperors deemed Savaria worthy of a visit, staying at an imperial residence located there. The most famous of these was Septimius Severus, who rose to power as the governor of Pannonia Superior. He made Savaria his home for several years during his rise to power. In 193 AD he was crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire, some sources state that this occurred in Carnuntum on the Danube, others that it took place in Savaria. Whatever the case, his final rise to emperor took place during his residency in Savaria.

Having the most powerful man in the most powerful empire up to that time in world history as a resident is worth noting. An important occurrence in a place most people – Roman scholars included – spend little time in considering while studying the empire. Other famous people from Roman Savaria include two Saints, Martin of Tours who was born in the city and Quirinus. The latter was murdered during persecutions of Christians in the early 4th century by having a millstone tied around his neck and then being tossed into the local stream, the Perint.

Ruination- Roman Governors Palace ruins in Szombathely

Ruination- Roman Governors Palace ruins in Szombathely

Rome In Ruins – Conquered By Christianity
Savaria was too close to the frontier for comfort, a situation that would eventually lead to its demise, but not before the Romans left posterity much to consider. One of the Roman sites I came across was only a five-minute walk from the main square (Fo ter) in Szombathely. Just beyond the Szombathely Cathedral was the Romkert (Roman garden), which held ruins that included the Roman Governor’s Palace. The site could be interpreted as a reminder of how Christianity, which sprang from the empire, came to dominate then supersede it. Here were the foundations, walls and stones of the Roman Governor’s Palace and other structures. Where Septimius Severus and other imperial leaders ruled omnipotently with unchecked power.

Power though is fleeting. The Empire was now resigned to the shadows of Szombathely. Romans like Septimius Severus would have been shaken and astonished to find that Christianity had not only outlasted the empire, but also conquered it.  Men such as Saint Quirinus, who had lost their lives in adherence to a forbidden faith, set an incredibly powerful example. Quirinus self-sacrificing martyrdom was an excellent example of how personal power can overcome position power. The Romans had the latter in spades, but by the 4th century the Empire offered a less than stable present and little hope for a more secure future. Christianity, on the other hand, offered the hope for both.

Romkert with Szomabthely Cathederal in the distance

Romkert with Szomabthely Cathederal in the distance (Credit: Pan Peter12)

Ancestors of Greatness – Remember Us
Viewing ancient Roman ruins is always a strange experience. Even the least impressive ruins deserve reverence for surviving two thousand years of wars, conquests, progress and regress. On the day I visited the Romkert my viewing was proscribed by the site being closed. Even then, I was still able to see many ruins. While looking at them I tried to imagine “what once was”. That is difficult without knowledge of Roman architecture and urban planning, something I lack. My experiences with these ruins like all the other ones I have seen was melancholic. I saw them as “what will never be again”. A feeling of intense loss overcoming me. Ruins like these always make me wonder what, if anything, our own civilizations will leave behind. The scattered membrane of a smart phone, shrouds of mass produced cheap clothing or the remains of a few buildings that were not meant to last, but somehow did.

Rome was the most powerful civilization in world history until its decline and fall. What little of it still survives today, at least physically, relies to a large extent for its preservation on cities like Szombathely. The city values the Roman legacy because it brings prestige to this relatively unknown provincial hub along with tourist dollars. It drew me like a magnet from the train station, through the main square, past the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace to the Romkert. I just had to see what was left, even if I was disturbed when contemplating its true meaning. To be an ancestor of greatness is better than not ever being great at all, but powerful empires all eventually falter. Greatness wanes, power ebbs, cities crumble, populations disappear and all that is left are some barren stones, cracked walls and vague mosaics. These are visited by people like you and me who want to understand it all. Oddly enough, we end up realizing that the way ancient societies are remembered today, will be the same way we are remembered in the future. That is a humbling thought.

Click here: A Story of Surprises – James Joyce & Szombathely: Walking Through Walls

An Inside Joke On The Rest Of The World – Hungarian Linguistics: Say Szombathely

My second day in Gyor I headed southward to visit two smaller cities in Transdanubia, Sarvar and Szombathely. The former was best known for its castle that had been home to the infamous Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. The latter was a total unknown to me until I discovered it on a map, read a guidebook entry that sounded intriguing and decided to visit. My fascination with Szombathely was partly due its name. I found it, like most Hungarian names and words, to be unpronounceable. I butchered the name when it first passed from my lips, pronouncing it Zome-bath-aly. This led me to believe that perhaps it had something to do with spas and thermal baths. Of course I was wrong. Szombathely means “Saturday place” and the correct pronunciation is Somm-bah-tay. Just because I figured that out did not make such language difficulties any easier. Every day in Hungary involved hundreds of encounters with bizarre words that had no relation to anything I had ever read, spoken or heard before.

Szombathely - "Saturday place"

Szombathely – “Saturday place”

Tongue Tied – Best Left Unsaid
The Hungarian language was a wilderness I wandered into with no map or guide to help me find my bearings. Szombathely was just another in a long litany of incredibly complex words that only a native Hungarian could understand. Even the most basic words in Magyar (what Hungarians call their language and themselves) bear no relation to those from Romance or Germanic languages. Take for instance the days of the week, Szombat is the easiest for me to remember because it bears at least a vague resemblance to Saturday. The same cannot be said for the other days of the week. Monday is Hetfo, which I pronounced as Hate-fu.  This might be a little easier to remember since I pretty much hate Mondays. Tuesday is Kedd, memorable and nonsensical, unless of course you are a Hungarian. The fact that Kedd did not remind me of the Hungarian words I did know was not very helpful. At least Szerda (Wednesday) and Csutortok (Thursday) looked like Hungarian words. This made them a bit more palatable. My biggest problem was with Friday which was Pentek. It was pronounced Pain-tech. Fridays have never been painful for me, at least that I can remember.

This linguistic madness culminates with Vasarnap, the word for Sunday. Trying to memorize each day of the week in Hungarian takes an inordinate amount of concentrated practice. I had neither the patience nor focus to learn the days of the week or a few phrases in Hungarian before I arrived in Szombathely. I was too busy reading about Szombathely’s history and points of interest to learn how to correctly pronounce the city’s name. Pretty much anyone who has ever spent time in Hungary agrees that Hungarian is one of the strangest languages they have ever heard. Not only is it strange, but also incredibly difficult to learn. Hungarians consider non-native speakers who master the language to have almost magical powers. That is because of the language’s  degree of complexity and the fact that there are so few non-native speakers.

Hungarian ranks alongside Chinese in difficulty. The difference is that there are 1.2 billion Chinese speakers and only 15 million Hungarian ones, thus there are more opportunities and reasons to learn Chinese. The only thing that makes Hungarian a bit more accessible is the Latin script that it is rendered in. Yet the letters are a mixed-up mumble jumble of consonants with the occasional vowel. Upon seeing a sign written in Hungarian, I immediately feel as though I have entered an exotic world. The most disconcerting thing is that everything else in Hungary looks rather European. That may be pointing out the obvious, but the language is like nothing else in Europe or for that matter most of the world.

Impenetrable - Plaque in Szombathely

Impenetrable – Plaque in Szombathely (Credit: Fekist)

Secretly Sympathetic – Smiles For Trying
One of the oddest sensations is watching Hungarians converse among themselves. They look and act like normal people, but their communications are unintelligible to an outsider.  Even though I knew a few words of Hungarian, it was almost impossible for me to pick out individual words amid the torrent of bizarre enunciations. Sometimes it felt like Hungarians had developed a secret form of communication that they only share among themselves. An inside joke on the rest of the world. One of the more heartening aspects of trying to speak this impenetrable language was readily apparent. Namely that anyone who tried to speak the language was met with sympathy. Managing to utter so much as “Kozsonom” (Thank You) could elicit a smile from the usually stone-faced Hungarians. They must understand how complex their native tongue can be to foreigners.

Even after memorizing several different words in Hungarian, pronouncing them correctly was close to impossible without hearing a native speaker. I had managed to get a ticket to Zome-bath-ely without bothering to embarrass myself by mispronouncing the name. This was because I wrote the station name on a piece of paper and pointed at it. I wished it could have been easier, many centuries ago it was. Szombathely had not always gone by that name. It had two other iterations that would have been much easier, mainly because they were in Latin and German. The first was Savaria, the Ancient Roman capital of the province of Pannonia Superior. This name referred to a nearby river. The second was Steinamanger, a German construct that meant “stone on the green”. This derived from the many ruins German settlers found scattered on the ground where Savaria had once stood. Szombathely referred to the city’s status as a market town. Market day was on Szombat (Saturday). All three of Szombathely’s names started with the letter S, but that was about all they had in common. As centuries passed the name got more complex. Hungarians conquered the area, not just with weapons, but also their language.

Another world - Szombathely Train Station

Another world – Szombathely Train Station

Lost In Translation –An Unspoken Truth
The day I arrived in Szombathely was on Kedd rather than Szombat. Everything in the city was new to me, including almost of the words being spoken. There was very little bilingual signage. Without translation the language was open to my own interpretation. To have no fluency in the only language used in a city makes for a quixotic experience. I was ultimately an outsider, a foreigner, an onlooker walking the streets of Szombathely. There was a barrier between me and the locals with no way to break it down in a just a few hours. Not knowing what to say or how to say it, left me feeling isolated and lonely. Much the same as Hungarian speakers must feel when confronted with the rest of a world that cannot possibly understand them.

Click here for: In The Shadow of Szombathely – Savaria: What Once Was & Will Never Be Again


With The Greatest Of Courage – The Final Journey (Bishop Vilmos Apor Part 3)

Just outside the Bishop’s Palace in Gyor there stands a statue of Vilmos Apor. Cast in bronze, the commandingly tall, broad shouldered Bishop is portrayed with his right hand held up, as if to halt those who might be walking past him. In his left hand, he holds a bible, pressing it up against his garment. Around his neck is a chain holding a large cross. His gaze is solemn, if a bit stern, the look of a man who took his duties seriously. He certainly did. The statue is meant to portray more than just Vilmos Apor the man, it also represents a historic scene that occurred in the same area on March 28th and 29th, 1945. A scene that represents how war can bring out the best in some men and the worst in others.

Bishop Vilmos Apor

Bishop Vilmos Apor (Credit: Alchetron.com)

The End Of Innocence – Barbarians At The Gate
On Good Friday, five Red Army soldiers appeared at the entrance to the cellars of the Bishop’s Palace in Gyor. Here they were met by Bishop Vilmos Apor. The soldier’s requested several women from those taking refuge in the cellars to help them with “peeling potatoes”. That was code for taking women away for sex. As he had done on previous days, Bishop Apor used his considerable negotiating skills to dissuade the soldiers and turn their attention away from the women. This time though, a heated argument broke out. Bishop Apor decided that he would give the soldiers some of the help they had requested. He went into one of the cellars and asked for elderly refugees who could help. A number volunteered their services. Bishop Apor hoped this would allow the younger women enough time to hide. The soldiers soon wandered away.

Before long, the soldiers were back. They had been drinking heavily and were noticeably intoxicated. Once again Bishop Apor met them. While they were talking, a young girl who could no longer stand the tension sprung from her hiding place in an apple cellar. She took off running while at the same time crying for the Bishop’s help. The Russian soldiers immediately gave chase. Bishop Apor yelled at them to leave. This seemed to startle the soldiers who began to flee, but one turned around and unloaded several rounds at the Bishop with his machine gun. He was struck three times, with one of the wounds piercing his abdomen. Bishop Apor was not dead, but was in need of immediate medical attention. The Red Army soldier who shot him was not apprehended. Even if he had been, it is doubtful that justice would have been served.

An Act Of Courage - Bishop Vilmos Apor protecting women and children

An Act Of Courage – Bishop Vilmos Apor protecting women and children (Credit: Alchetron.com)

Darkest Hours – The Fight To Survive
A doctor and Bishop Apor’s sister led the effort to transport him to the nearest hospital. Though time was of the essence due to the Red Army’s presence, the stretcher bearers were slowed down due to constant checks by Soviet soldiers. By the time Bishop Apor arrived at the hospital his condition had worsened. By all accounts he remained totally calm throughout the ordeal. He did not harbor any resentment towards the soldiers who had precipitated the incident. Bishop Alpor stated that they should be forgiven because they were under the influence of alcohol, which caused them to lose all control over their actions. His belief in forgiveness and human goodness were not altered by his predicament. Many witnesses who saw him during this time were astounded by his indifference to the excruciating pain he must have felt. His character did not falter during those dark hours. The surgery was done in the most primitive of conditions at a local hospital.

Two surgeons working by the flickering light of a petrol lamp managed to stabilize Bishop Apor’s condition. By the following day he showed some slight improvement. The Bishop was able to take Holy Communion, adhering to the tenets of his faith even while suffering the most agonizing pain. At one point he gave blessing to some colleagues who stood outside, looking into the window of his room. Throughout this ordeal, he was also comforted by his sister Gizella who unfailingly maintained a presence at the bedside. On Easter Sunday, a day when Bishop Apor would usually have been celebrating the rising of Christ with hundreds of other believers, his condition took a turn for the worse. A terrible infection had set in. It soon became apparent that he would not survive.

The Tomb of Vilmos Apor in Gyor Cathedral

The Tomb of Vilmos Apor in Gyor Cathedral (Credit: Daniel Kovacs)

The Ultimate Example – Taking A Stand
Bishop Apor prepared accordingly for this final journey by giving his confession and asked that the priests in his Diocese carry on preaching the word of God with the greatest of courage. This powerful and unforgettable message to his followers sustained countless Hungarians in the years to come. One that they would attempt to heed in the difficult and dark decades that lay ahead for them under Communism. Left unspoken was that Bishop Apor’s actions had already shown those under his tutelage the true path. Bishop Apor lived on in all those who found inspiration in the example he had provided for them. He also took it upon himself to bear the burden of suffering to absolve the Hungarian nation for the sins that had been committed during the war. Bishop Apor believed that those who had committed such transgressions were blind and could not see. Ironically, it was Bishop Apor in his death throes who clearly saw the light, just as he had throughout his entire life. The light that illuminated a righteous path, the one he had followed throughout his earthly existence.

On Easter Monday, Bishop Vilmos Apor succumbed to the wounds he had suffered by the hand of an unknown Soviet soldier. He was just 53 years old. Though his life had been cut short, Bishop Apor had done everything spiritually and materially possible to carry out his mission of providing for those most in need. One of the last questions he asked was if all the women who had been under his care in the cellars were still safe from harm. They were. He had given up his own life, in order that innocent women not be harmed. This act of kindness, courage and justice would not be forgotten. Not only does Bishop Apor’s statue stand outside the entrance to the Bishop’s Palace, but his actions over those final days stand as an example of kindness, courage and justice to both citizens of Gyor and the world.

Click here for: An Inside Joke On The Rest Of The World – Hungarian Linguistics: Say Szombathely


We Must All Die One Day – In Search Of A Saint (Vilmos Alpor Part Two)

I have never understood the fascination with religious saints. The personages I have so often seen portrayed on stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals in Eastern and Central Europe seem like distant figures that belong as much to myth as reality. The fact that I am not Catholic likely plays into my skepticism about saints. I have never spent much time or effort learning about the various saints illuminated in an amazing array of colors on church windows. That is because the stories I have read about most of them seem a bit too fantastical for my taste. For instance, one of the few saints that I am vaguely familiar with is Saint George, largely because I am fond of the story where he slayed the dragon. Of course, I have never seen a dragon, thus I do not take this tale at face value. I doubt many other people do either.

The story is meant to be metaphorical, but Saint George was a real man. Real men do not face dragons, unless it is the product of someone else’s imagination. All that skepticism aside, I must admit that I do have a favorite saint, one that is contrary to the usual imaginings to them. This saint is a man who will not be found on any stained glass windows, whose life was not the stuff legends are made of and who lived not in some mysterious past, but in a modern one that still lurks within living memory. A man who had human rather than mythological characteristics, but whose acts of humanitarianism were a sign of immortality because they lived on, long after he died. That man was the Hungarian Bishop Vilmos Apor.

Morning - Gyor

Morning – Gyor

A Principled Stand – Under No Illusions
World War II brought out the best in Bishop Vilmos Apor, because he was not a man of his time, but a man of all time. He spearheaded courageous efforts to protect those who were marginalized, discriminated against and threatened by German Nazis, Hungarian Fascists and Soviet Communists. All this was done during the darkest years of the early to mid-1940’s. During this time, he spoke out against the extremist ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Communism at great personal risk to himself. He also protested the discriminatory treatment of Jews, going so far as to fight against their deportation from Hungary. Among his many actions, he wrote letters to high government officials telling them they were responsible for the destruction of Hungary’s once vibrant Jewish community.

Bishop Apor was under no illusions about what was happening to the Jews. He had learned from sources about what happened to the Jews deported to Auschwitz’s genocidal chambers. Such vocal protestations were out of step with a Hungarian government that had veered radically to the right and German occupation authorities who were hell bent on exterminating all of Hungary’s Jewish citizens.
For Bishop Apor this principled stand was worth it. He saw it as his duty to advocate for the oppressed. There is no way to quantify how many lives he helped save, but there is little doubt that his efforts resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, surviving the war. His efforts came at the highest cost, because he ended up sacrificing his own life to save others.

A Man With A Mission - Bishop Vilmos Apor

A Man With A Mission – Bishop Vilmos Apor

Sacrifices To Save Life – Forced By Circumstances
The siege of Gyor was short-lived. German forces melted away when faced with the Red Army’s overwhelming superiority in men and material. Bishop Apor was busy tending to the needs of the hundreds he had afforded refuge in the cellars of the Bishop’s Palace in the city’s Belvaros. Refugees hid in these cavernous cellars below his residence, seeking to survive a war that would soon be over, but not soon enough to save all their lives. There was the constant threat of being shot, raped or robbed. Gyor’s beautiful Baroque inspired Belvaros was under assault. No one was safe, not even the most powerful spiritual leader in the region. If he had not been forced by circumstances to stay in Gyor due to the siege, Apor would have been further to the south in the town of Koszeg, where he and several other Catholic leaders had been invited to a “conference” with representatives of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.

The Arrow Cross was upset with Bishop Apor and other Catholic leaders for positions they had taken regarding the defense of what was left of unoccupied Hungary. Bishop Apor wanted the Hungarian government to save the remaining population and cultural treasures of northern Transdanubia by calling off military defense efforts. He knew a fight to the bitter end would be futile. The war in Hungary was lost and continued resistance would only result in getting innocent civilians killed. Bishop Apor’s stance enraged the fanatical leadership of the Arrow Cross. They planned on arresting and imprisoning him. Strangely enough, the conference they had planned might have saved Apor’s life if he had been able to attend because he would not have been in Gyor for the Red Army’s arrival, but that is not what happened.

Vilmos Apor Statue - at entrance to Bishop's Palace in Gyor

Vilmos Apor Statue – at entrance to Bishop’s Palace in Gyor

Insurmountable Odds – At The Point Of Exhaustion
Once the short-lived battle for Gyor ended another battle began, this one was between Hungarian civilians and Red Army soldiers. Any woman or group of women was fair game if they ran into Soviet soldiers. They were searching for women who they would then compel to satisfy their desires. This brought them to the cellars below the Bishop’s Residence where hundreds had taken refuge. Each time soldiers would arrive Bishop Apor would meet them outside the entrance. Some were submissive to his authority, while others were belligerent. Despite a language barrier and the lack of a good translator he was able to send them off without incident. This pattern continued with increasing frequency. Bishop Apor worked around the clock to ensure that no woman under his protection was harmed. This brought him to the point of near exhaustion.

In desperation, he sent representatives to ask the Soviet officers now in charge of Gyor for an armed guard to ensure the continued safety of those housed beneath the Bishop’s Palace. The request was denied. The question now became how long Bishop Apor could continue to negotiate with groups of armed soldiers? Every meeting was fraught with risk, the odds of something going badly wrong became insurmountable. On the morning of Good Friday, Bishop is reported to have told those helping him, “We must all die one day, and one had better sacrifice one’s life for a good cause on a day like this.” That day was fast approaching.

Click here for: With The Greatest Of Courage – The Final Journey (Bishop Vilmos Apor Part 3)


The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act Of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One)

Walking around Gyor’s Belvaros I had little idea that World War II had much effect on the city. If I had not come across the name of Bishop Vilmos Apor in a guidebook I would not have given Gyor’s wartime experience much thought. It turned out that Gyor had suffered grave damage from both allied aerial bombings and the excesses of Soviet soldiers. The Germans “defending” the city did not do it any favors either. They were responsible for shelling the Cathedral and Carmelite Church with mortar fire after evacuating across the Raab River. The Hungarians in Gyor were caught in a lethal crossfire. I found all this terrifying and fascinating. Strangely, this history was not to be discovered in any of the city’s museums. Instead, I would have to learn about it through personal research. In a way, that made sense. There were plenty of people still alive who had living memories of the horrors that took place in the now quiet streets and alleyways I walked along.

The citizens of Gyor must have felt that the trauma of World War II was best left in the past. It had certainly been suppressed by the Soviets who occupied and controlled Hungary after the war. They did not want to call attention to the acts of indiscriminate violence by the Red Army during their so called “liberation” of Hungary. There were no major memorials or noticeable monuments for the losses sustained by Hungarian civilians during this time. The most meaningfully evocative monument to the war in Gyor was a tomb, that of Bishop Vilmos Apor. It was to be found in Gyor Cathedral. By the time I arrived at the Cathedral in the late afternoon, it was closed. That was disappointing, but I knew history does not have opening or closing hours, it does not take holidays or weekends off. History requires active pursuit to rediscover the past. It is brought back to life every time it is studied. Thus, began my journey into Gyor’s World War II experience and by extension the death of Vilmos Apor.

Vilmos Apor - Bishop of Gyor

Vilmos Apor – Bishop of Gyor

Guilt By Association & Provocation – The Red Army In Hungary
In the latter half of 1944 the Red Army invaded Eastern Hungary in pursuit of the German Wehrmacht. They were now entering a region that had not previously been part of the Soviet Union. The Soviets considered Hungary a mortal enemy due to its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. The Hungarian Army had joined in the German invasion of Soviet territory and in some instances had mistreated the local population. Such acts would not soon be forgotten. When Soviet soldiers swept westward they saw firsthand how their own countrymen had been terrorized. Villages had been burnt to the ground while grain and livestock was stolen from dirt poor peasants. Countless thousands died of starvation. Scores of Soviet citizens had been summarily executed for the most trivial offenses. The Nazis and their allies cut a wide swath of destruction both in their advance and retreat. This stoked the simmering hatred of Soviet soldiers. They awaited the day when revenge could be exacted on all those who associated themselves with fascism.

This bloodlust would first be unleashed on a defenseless Hungarian civilian population.  Word of mass rapes and bestial brutality towards women of all ages soon filtered out from Nyiregyhaza, the first larger city the Red Army occupied in Hungary. Revenge was the motivating factor behind such behavior. The same violent acts occurred in cities across Hungary as the Red Army continued its westward advance. Hungarian civilians hid or fled to save themselves from the ferocity of Red Army soldiers numb to violence after years of war and fortified with liquid courage by copious amounts of alcohol they discovered while looting. Stories of the atrocities inflicted upon civilians moved fast. People in the farther reaches of western Hungary knew what awaited them if they stayed in their homes. Many had no other choice, but to hope for the best. Just six weeks before the war would come to an end, the Red Army began an attack on Gyor. Within a couple of days German resistance had been defeated. Once the Germans retreated from the city, Hungarian civilians were left to fend for themselves.

Monument of Vilmos Apor at the Bishop's Palace in Gyor

Monument of Vilmos Apor at the Bishop’s Palace in Gyor (Credit: MrPanyGoff)

In Defense Of The Defenseless – Feats Of Courage
On March 28, 1945, just a few days short of Easter, the Red Army occupied Gyor. With no resistance left to oppose them, drunken Soviet soldiers began to prowl the city looking for women. Several times they came to the residence of Bishop Apor, leader of the Diocese of Gyor. In the cellar of his residence, Apor was housing between 300 to 400 women, children and the elderly.  Apor had spent weeks preparing for the coming battle, by procuring food and other essential supplies. He helped protect many able-bodied men from Gyor by sending them to stay at his country residence outside of the city. Meanwhile, he administered help to the most defenseless. The women hiding in the cellar sought to avoid the same fate that had already left tens of thousands of other Hungarian women traumatized or worse. The Bishop’s Palace in Gyor was a good place to hide. Apor was highly respected for his courage. Those sheltered at his residence must have believed that if he could not protect them, then no one could. He was beloved by many in the city, though it was a long way from his birthplace on the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Vilmos Apor was born in the eastern Transylvanian city of Segesvar (present day Sighisoara, Romania) in 1892, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were part of the Hungarian nobility and his father worked as an official in Vienna. The father died when young Vilmos was only six, leaving his mother to raise the family. She was a devout Catholic with an abiding faith, loving but also a disciplinarian. She procured for her son a Jesuit education that eventually moved him toward a career in the priesthood. After ordination he was assigned to the city of Gyula, in southeastern Hungary. Soon after arriving he setup an office that offered protective services to women. In this beginning, lay the seeds of Vilmos’ actions three decades later in Gyor, a city that he was appointed bishop in 1941 and where he would tragically die just four years later.

Click here for: We Must All Die One Day – In Search Of A Saint (Vilmos Apor Part Two)