The Price Of Loyalty – Sopron’s Return To History: Bordering On Prosperity

Sopron is known as the “most loyal” city in Hungary for good reason, almost two-thirds of the citizenry voted in a 1921 plebiscite to remain part of Hungary. It was the only area of “Historic Hungary” that reversed a territorial adjustment from the hated Treaty of Trianon which was imposed upon a defeated Hungary in the aftermath of the First World War. Hungarians have returned that devotion by lavishing Sopron with affection. In my experience, the city is second only to Budapest in mentions of the most beloved city in Hungary. Sopron has other attributes that add to its attractiveness. These include hundreds of historic structures and monuments, with a depth of history going all the way back to antiquity. There is also Sopron’s prosperity, which by Hungarian standards makes the city quite wealthy. It is wealth and loyalty that made Sopron what it is today, but those traits also lie deep in its past.

Worth more than a visit - History and beauty in Sopron

Worth more than a visit – History and beauty in Sopron

Roads To Wealth – Shopping In Scarbantia & Sopron
Over a thousand years before there was a Sopron, another city existed in the same location. That city was part of the ancient Roman empire and went by the name of Scarbantia. Just as modern-day Sopron is built upon commerce, so too was ancient Scarbantia. The latter could not rely on a nearby neighbor such as Austria to stimulate trade, instead the genesis of Scarbantia’s trade arose from more far flung regions. The city was located at an important junction where two roads, one each from the settlements of Vindobona (Vienna) and Carnuntum (to the north along the Danube River), came together on the Via Emilia, a Roman road that led onward to the Adriatic. This route, as well as Scarbantia, lay along the older Amber Road, that stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. The Romans were imposing their imperial designs on a trade route which predated their arrival. Scarbantia’s wealth grew due to the volume of trade which passed along the roads and this route, much of which the city benefited from.

Present day Sopron is also focused on trade. Commerce comes to it via several different roads, most principally the ones from Austria. Since both countries are members of the European Union, traffic can flow across the border unimpeded. Hundreds of cars drive across the Klingenbach and Deutschkreutz border crossings each day, moving from west to east, in search of deep discounts in consumer products and highly affordable health care. It has been said that location is everything when it comes to business, that is certainly true of the economic prosperity of Sopron past and present. Modern Sopron enjoys a fabulous location for commerce, as it is tucked up close to the Austrian border. For Austrians, Sopron is just minutes or at most a few hours away. A cross border trip is worth the savings they will incur by going to shop in Sopron. Prices are anywhere from 20% to 50% lower. On weekends, Austrians come to enjoy the beauty and ambiance of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner city), but also more importantly to shop. Sopronites may have voted to stay in Hungary, but they are more than happy to welcome Austrians.

Ruins of Scarbantia in Sopron

Ruins of Scarbantia in Sopron

Fierce Attachment – A Habsburgian Hungarian City
Just as Sopron’s economic basis as a trade hub aligns with both its past and present, so too does its loyalty to the homeland. The plebiscite vote in 1922 was not the first time in the city’s history when Sopron’s citizenry voiced their fervent support to stay part of Hungary. Almost 650 years earlier the same decision faced the Magyars who made up the bulk of Sopron’s population. It was in 1273 that military forces led by the Bohemian King, Ottokar II captured Sopron’s castle. He then took sons and daughters of the nobility as hostage in the hopes of forcing the population into supporting him and submitting to his rule. This strategy backfired. When the Hungarian King Ladislaus IV brought his troops to the city walls. The citizens threw open the gates to them. Sopron was recovered and for its faithfulness was rewarded with the designation of Free Royal Town (Szabad királyi város). This limited the Hungarian nobility’s privileges, while allowing the city to exercise self-government which manifested itself in greater freedom to develop and control its economy.

Sopron’s fierce attachment to Hungary is reflected in the events of both 1273 and 1922, but these were by no means the only times that the city showed its loyalty to Hungary. A fine example of this took place in 1529, when the city was looted by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were unable to occupy the city long term. After they left, the city was refortified and became one of the most important cities in Royal Hungary, as great multitudes of Magyars fled to it. It soon retook its place as a thriving economic hub. The Ottomans were never able to occupy it again, despite the century and a half of on again, off again warfare that plagued Hungary. Yet the famed loyalty of Sopron does come with some paradoxes. In both of Hungary’s Wars of Independence against Habsburg rule – Rakoczi’s from 1703 – 1711 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49 – Sopron was firmly secured under the Habsburg yoke. This is understandable, since Sopron’s nearness to the seat of Habsburg power in Vienna meant that Austrian power could be easily imposed. Plus, Sopron had benefited more than most Hungarian cities from Habsburg rule, due to the same type of trade and economic connections which it still enjoys today.

Return to history - Hungarian border guard cuts barbed wire at the border with Austria in 1989

Return to history – Hungarian border guard cuts barbed wire at the border with Austria in 1989

Beyond Borders – The Economic Ties That Bind
Loyalty can also come with a cost. Sopron discovered just how high the price could be during the Cold War. For four decades it stood on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, this hindered the city’s economic development. In a classic case of faraway, so close Austria and the wealth of Mitteleuropa was just out of reach. Barbed wire, border controls and gun barrels stood in the way of progress and prosperity. Nothing could have been nearer or farther than the Austrian border. Sopronites waited, faithfully and fitfully for the border to reopen and the city to be reconnected with its economic hinterland. That moment finally arrived in 1989. Since that time, the most faithful city in Hungary has resumed its historical role as one of the nation’s most prosperous.

Click here for: All That Remains  –  Sopron:  Lasting Impressions Of Brief Encounters

 

From Mansion To MOL Station –  Nagycenk Before Nightfall: Life A Little More Than Ordinary

Upon leaving the Szechenyi mausoleum and the cemetery behind I followed the road that I had taken from the railway station on into the center of town. The road itself was named for the great man. After making an arcing curve past rows of small houses it led to Szechenyi ter, where a sculpture of Istvan Szechenyi stood. Atop a large white plinth, there Szechenyi stood with his right hand in the air, palm turned upward and his gaze fixed skyward. It was as though he was lifting an entire nation up with his pose. On the white pediment were the words “Magayaorszag nem volt hanem lesz” which roughly translated into English means “Hungary wasn’t, it will be”. These were words Szechenyi had expressed with a future certainty.

Behind the statue was Saint Stephen Church, a rather restrained neo-Romanesque edifice that was about the only thing in Nagycenk which tried to challenge Szechenyi’s grip on local grandeur. Unfortunately, the church was closed. This was not the first time this had happened to me in Hungary, even in villages. Something I will never quite understand is why these churches are closed and locked. They should be places of spiritual shelter, rather than premises of unpermitted access to all but the anointed. This situation did not surprise me, though I found it highly irritating. I then headed off to find Szechenyi’s mansion. This entailed a good twenty-minute walk that took me just out of town into the adjacent countryside.

Szechenyi Mansion in Nagycenk

Szechenyi Mansion in Nagycenk (Credit: Harriet)

A Mansion & Memory – Everlasting Ideals
The neo-classical/late baroque façade of the Szechenyi Mansion looked like the type of home befitting a great family of pragmatic sensibilities. It managed to be stately and understated at the same time. There was no hint of the fantastical Esterhaza which I had visited in nearby Fertod a day earlier. Istvan Szechenyi was a man whose ideals were based on economy and efficiency. The mansion lacked any type of esoteric flourishes, instead it evoked stability and presence, just like the Szechenyi’s themselves. Istvan Szechenyi was a man who believed in capitalism, innovation and social progress. His greatest literary work was a volume on how to eliminate economic backwardness in Hungary and given the austere title Credit (Hitel). It would have been nice to see the interior, but I was out of luck again as the mansion had closed an hour before my arrival. I wandered around the back of the building, walking past the stud farm. At one time, Szechenyi had eighty studs on this farm. He had also pastured 25,000 sheep on the family estates. Those days were gone, but the memory of them was being kept alive by the mansion and its well-manicured grounds.

The grounds were impressive and my stroll around part of them took a considerable amount of time. Late afternoon was slowly turning to evening. I noticed the sun beginning to dip toward the western horizon. This was my signal to go find the nearest bus stop and wait on the next one for Sopron. As luck would have it, the bus had just left and there were very few running because it was a weekend. I was forced to wait for almost two hours until the next one arrived.  This was the first time I had ever found myself in a Hungarian village with more than a half-hour wait and nothing to do. There was little activity in Nagycenk, which was not all that surprising. It was early Sunday evening and spring was just arriving. The air began to grow chilly as dusk began to beckon. The sound of barking dogs and cars passing through town were the only noises that broke the silence.

Hanging out with the rest of humanity - MOL petrol station

Hanging out with the rest of humanity – MOL petrol station (Credit: globetrotter19)

Civilized Progress – An Extraordinary Convenience
After a few minutes at the bus stop, another man who looked to be in his fifties showed up and studied the bus schedule.  He asked me a question in Hungarian which I did not understand. He then pointed at the arrival time for the next bus to Sopron, shook his head and we both laughed. Actions translate more easily than words. I knew exactly what he meant, just like me he had been a few minutes too late. He soon wandered off, likely back to his residence. I did not have that option. There was nothing left for me to do other than walk to the MOL station and get something to eat. MOL (Magyar OLaj- és Gázipari Részvénytársaság) stands for the Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company. The company operates a chain of gas stations across the country. At the point where Highways 84 (to Sopron) and 85 (to Sarvar) split off in Nagycent stands a strategically placed MOL station.

I was likely one of the few tourists or travelers that walked, rather than drove, to a MOL station. This action was nothing special though it turned into an essential travel experience. Walking to a MOL station was not what I traveled halfway around the world to do, but I felt more a part of Hungary doing this than I would have on any grand tour of the country. There is travel experience and then there is living experience. For a moment I was able to step out of the former and into the latter. Going to a MOL station was a daily activity for many Hungarians, what I would call a living experience. This was what life came down to every day for many Hungarians and the same could be said for Americans. All the collective efforts of civilized progress had brought MOLs and similar stations like it.

Same As It Ever Was – Hanging Out With The Rest Of Humanity
I have often wondered what it would be like to live in Eastern Europe. My several hours in Nagycent gave me an idea. People came and went at the gas station, fueling up their cars. The attendants looked incredibly bored, just like they do in the United States. Everything was pretty much the same as at home. I found this familiarity comforting. The days of Hungary being part of a wild, exotic east or sequestered behind an Iron Curtain were a thing of the distant past. Communism came and went, what it left behind were a bunch of bad buildings and endemic corruption. Capitalism now reigned supreme. If anything, the MOL station was much nicer than the mom and pop convenience stores back home. Everything was coated in a bright sheen of stylish design. There was nothing exotic about the place, but professionalism and neatness reigned supreme over every shelf.

The genius of western civilization offered every traveler the comfort of candy bars and fizzy drinks. I had come to Nagycenk in search of Szechenyi and in the process discovered the joys of a MOL petrol station. The station lodged itself in my memory much longer than the Szechenyi Mansion or Mausoleum. The latter were extraordinary places, sought out by thousands of bored school children, fervent Hungarian nationalists and travel guide toting foreigners. The MOL station was a place where the rest of humanity hung out, fated to spend a few minutes or hours of their lives.

Click here for: The Price Of Loyalty – Sopron’s Return To History: Bordering On Prosperity

Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The last thing I did before leaving Koszeg was snap a photo of the train station, a two story building with a lime exterior and dirty red roof that was a cross between elegant and decrepit. The station looked like it was either one coat of paint away from renovation or one moment away from dilapidation. This made it especially photogenic. The picture was one that I came to treasure, as a throwback to a bygone era of travel that had somehow survived into the modern age. This was a photo that I enjoyed staring at, imagining that I was on one of the empty benches, backpack at my side, guidebook in hand, waiting for the next train to Szombathely. For me, this photo was essentially romantic, filled with the unspoken possibilities of travel, a journey beginning or ending in some far-off place. In sum, it stirred my imaginative longings for a place I longed to be. A life spent in perpetual motion, always in transit, a citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

Quite shockingly, my view of this photo was irreparably altered months later while reading Paul Lendvai’s remarkable work of history, The Hungarians: Victory In Defeat. In the middle of the book were the usual assortment of glossy historical photos of personages or events that were important to Hungarian history. One of these caught my attention. It showed a large group of people crowded together holding some of their belongings. They were huddled together, most of them with their backs to the camera waiting on some form of transport. The caption stated: “Jewish deportees from the Western Hungarian township Koszeg, summer 1944. Between 15 May and 7 July 402 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom only a minority survived.” I immediately made a connection. The Jews in this photo were likely standing at Koszeg’s train station. Sure enough, when I started searching on the internet I discovered that the photo was snapped at the station. This raised questions, was the photo taken surreptitiously or purposely? Likely the latter. Perhaps for official purposes, as proof that deportation was taking place.

Dreams & Nightmares - Koszeg Railway Station

Dreams & Nightmares – Koszeg Railway Station

Sinister Stirrings – Taking It Personally
I later discovered a larger sized version of the same photo that personalized the horror. Studying it, I was able to discern multiple details. There was a woman in white headscarf in the front left of the group. In her arms she held a large, thick black coat. Judging by her looks, she was older than average and thus would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz. All the adults standing in the group are wearing coats. Some are better dressed than others, such as the man in the far left of the image who looks to be wearing a rather nice suit. Quite a contrast from a man in the front right of the photo, who is only seen from a side angle. His slump shouldered posture expressive of defeat. He props himself up with a cane, while a hat and coat cover his beaten figure. In the background stands a vehicle piled high with suitcases and trunks filled with personal belongings. These possessions were destined to be taken from their owners in the coming days. The same could be said for so many of their lives.

The most disturbing part of the image for me was to be found in the lower right corner. Here a woman can be seen dressed in a very nice outfit, perhaps an employee of the state railways. She is talking with another person who cannot be seen. The woman looks stylish and quite casual. There is no hint on her face that anything sinister is taking place. It is just another day at work for her or at least that is what the image portrays. There could be no greater contrast than that of this woman protected by her status and ethnicity, standing within a stone’s throw of those Jews on the verge of being transported to a death camp. This all happened close to where I took my picture. There was no plaque at the station commemorating this tragedy. It was lacking out of shame or ignorance, neglect or indifference.

Traces of evil - Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Traces of evil – Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Abandoned Dreams – A Nightmare Scenario
It has since dawned on me that the most consistent physical reminder left of the Holocaust in Hungary are its railway stations. These portals of public transport were supposed to be harbingers of technological progress. They were built to facilitate commerce and the movement of people. The stations and trains certainly did that, but also ended up being used for genocidal purposes in 1944. Koszeg’s train station is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the deportation of the Jews. The same thing happened at innumerable railway stations and sidings across Hungary. Without the extensive railway system in Hungary it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to administer the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Never in the history of Europe had such a normal aspect of everyday life, whether for work or pleasure, been put to such horrific use.

The fact that Koszeg’s little railway station was the place where more than 400 Jews were shuttled off to one of the most infamous death camps in history is almost as difficult to fathom as the Holocaust itself. A place that I saw as a starting point for dreams of wider travel excursions had been the beginning of someone else’s nightmare. This ambiguity can be found in many such places where a conflicted history meets a present reality in Hungary. On the day I arrived and departed from the station it was almost vacant. There were few passengers on the platform. What I could not see, understand or comprehend were the ghosts of all those Jews who had been deported not so long ago. They were somewhere out there in the past, waiting on a train that they hoped would not arrive and wondering if it did, what that meant for their future. Whatever dreams of life in Koszeg they still had were left abandoned at the siding. Whatever illusions I had about travel from the Koszeg railway station were also abandoned. Left behind at the very moment I saw that photo in Lendvai’s book.

Click here for: Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits

The Perseverance of Preservation- Endre Csatkai: A Savior For Sopron

I came into Sopron expecting magnificence, I was not to be disappointed. For a city that suffered multiple aerial bombings during the Second World War, Sopron had done an excellent job of putting itself back together with considerable attention to historical detail. Innumerable Baroque buildings lined the streets of the city’s Old Town. There were also vestiges of Renaissance and Medieval era architecture to be found. While getting to the bottom of Sopron’s structural history meant coming to terms with the legacy of ancient Rome. Undergirding its cobblestone streets were the foundations of Sopron’s Roman predecessor, Scarbantia. The Roman city walls could still be seen in several places and Sopron’s main square (Fo ter) was built atop the site of the old Roman forum. In short, Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner City) was consumed by the past. I have rarely visited a place that felt so historical.

The Preservationist - Endre Csatkai

The Preservationist – Endre Csatkai

Selfless Gifts-  A Life’s Work
A showpiece of preservation, the Old Town had been marked by a fate more fortunate than that of almost any other Hungarian city. Perhaps it was destiny or chance, but old Sopron had been left largely intact. The Mongols never quite made it this far and the Ottoman Turks’ stay was surprisingly short. World War II did some damage, but occupation came at the tail of the war. By that point, the worst of the fighting was over. Habsburgs and Hungarians had been the city’s main historical influencers. Sopron shows that a lot of luck can go a long way in preserving an old cityscape. Yet preservation is not something that just happens by chance, it is also based on attitude, ethics and beliefs, all human qualities.

Every city should have as great a preservationist as Sopron did during the 20th century. I discovered this person’s name in the pages of an old guidebook. A passing reference was made in a single sentence to a man who had spent a half century of his life working to tell the story of Sopron and working to preserve its architectural wonders. In the process, he bequeathed a selfless gift to future generations of visitors who would come to revere his legacy, even if they did not know much, if anything, about him. That man was a Hungarian art historian by the name of Endre Csatkai. Sopron was more than a place to Csatkai, it was his passion.

Monumental - One of Endre Csatkai's many books on Sopron

Monumental – One of Endre Csatkai’s many books on Sopron

Self-Education – The Thirst For Knowledge
Endre Csatkai was born in the village of Darufalva in the late 19th century. At that time Darufalva was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, later it would become part of Austria. The village was just a handful of kilometers northwest of Sopron, the city where Csatkai would come to know more intimately than perhaps any of its citizens. He graduated from high school there in 1914. This was the same year that Hungary entered a cataclysmic period in its history with the beginning of World War I. Csatkai was also entering a very difficult time in his life. Due to lung disease he was hospitalized for long periods of time. This kept him away from the battlefront and delayed his studies at the university level. His illness became a blessing in disguise. It afforded him an opportunity for self-education. With considerable time on his hands, he set about satisfying an insatiable thirst for knowledge. When he finally recovered his health, Csatkai completed his doctorate.

Csatkai was a man of many diverse occupations. His professions reflected his interests. He taught, worked in a museum, edited a popular Hungarian art magazine, wrote reference works about a wide array of subjects and curated exhibitions on such famous musicians as Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt. For many years, Csatkai worked in Eisenstadt, Austria which Hungarians referred to as Kismarton. His Jewish ethnicity and the rise of Nazism threatened to derail his career. Following the Anschluss, whereby Nazi Germany annexed Austria, he was forced to flee back to Sopron. The tentacles of fascism were long and reached beyond borders. The German occupation of Hungary in 1944 meant that Csatkai could be arrested or deported at any moment. Despite attempts by powerful members of the Sopron community to protect him from the anti-Jewish laws which were being swiftly implemented, Csatkai was not exempted from discriminatory measures. He became a forced laborer, which left him emaciated and disease ridden. These harsh conditions nearly cost him his life. He was barely able to survive the war.

Old Sopron - Standing The Test of Time

Old Sopron – Standing The Test of Time (Credit: Tamas Konok)

The Afterlife – From Resurrection to Reconstruction
Incredibly Csatkai’s enthusiasm for Sopron’s history, art and architecture never waned despite his wartime sufferings. He did not immigrate abroad like so many other Hungarian Jews in the postwar years. Instead he stayed in Sopron, spearheading the effort to reopen the city museum which had been left ruined by the war. At the same time, he continued to publish many articles on the art history of Sopron. By the end of his long life, he had authored over a thousand articles. They offered a wealth of invaluable detail about a range of subjects, including the monuments, fine art objects and architecture of Sopron from the 17th through 19th century. These were the building blocks of knowledge that helped reconstruct the city. Without Csatkai, Sopron’s historic preservation efforts might have faltered.

Csatkai’s cultivation of knowledge helped restore the Old Town to its former magnificence. It is hard to imagine just how much capacity for knowledge he had when it came to Sopron. His literary output was vast, eclectic and voluminous. Among his many works there were books on the history of Sopron’s Music Association, the Production of Fireworks and Fire Extinguishers in Sopron, Sopron’s Soaps and Candlesticks along with more mainstream works on Liszt and the Hungarian nationalist poet, Sandor Petofi.  If it concerned Sopron, then Csatkai found it worth researching, studying and writing about. It is not a stretch to say that Endre Csatkai was Sopron and Sopron was Endre Csatkai, each a reflection of the other. For Csatkai, cataloging and cultivating the history of Sopron was a selfless act of self-actualization. And besides self-satisfaction, it was not so much what Csatkai got for his efforts, as what he gave to future generations, helping to create an ethos that informs continuing preservation efforts in the city. Csatkai’s work has stood the test of time, just like the city he so dearly loved.

Click here for: Versailles Off The Beaten Path – Traveling To Easterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

Versailles Off The Beaten Path –  Traveling To Esterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

Periodontal Pilgrimages – Tooth Tourism In Sopron: Discount Dentistry In Hungary

Sopron was the final Hungarian city I traveled to on this trip. It was a place I had been looking forward to visiting with a great deal of anticipation. Sopron’s reputation preceded itself. To Hungarians, it is the most faithful city. This is because Sopron voted in a 1921 plebiscite to remain in Hungary rather than become part of Austria. I have often wondered how many Sopronites regretted this decision during the Cold War, when their city ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Now over a quarter century after the Berlin Wall fell, the difference in prosperity between Sopron and the nearest Austrian city, Eisenstadt, was still mainly due to the old East-West divide. Fortunately for Sopron, its economy has been boosted by proximity to the Austrian border. The city is no more than a ten-minute drive from the nearest border crossing and Vienna is only an hour away. Hundreds of Hungarians cross the border each day while traveling to work in Austria where wages are much higher than in Hungary. In the opposite direction, thousands of Austrians head eastward into Hungary each week for cheap shopping and tourism. They also join loads of foreigners who come to Sopron for what has become known as “dental tourism”. I should have taken advantage of those services on this trip. Much to my regret I did not.

Tooth relief & tourism - The Old Town of Sopron

Tooth relief & tourism – The Old Town of Sopron (Credit: Zairon)

Dental DiscoveriesDealing With Debilitating Pain
An upper molar on the right side of my mouth had started throbbing not long after I landed in damp and cold Prague ten days before. Something about the cool and humid conditions sent my tooth into extreme abscess mode. Out of pure stubbornness I decided to try and tough out the pain. This manifested itself in strange ways. At night I tossed and turned, awakened by the raging infection. Then in the morning I was reduced to damn near tears by a sharp, shooting pain that followed a warm shower. The warm water seemed to irritate the nerve in my mouth even worse than the cool climate. At moments like these I would resolve to find a dentist, any dentist in the Czech capital who could provide me with painkillers, antibiotics and possibly a root canal. Then I would go out and about, eventually the pain would subside for the time being or turn to a dull, but tolerable ache. I did not want to spend my third trip in Eastern Europe at the dentist so I would hope for the best, only to have the same thing happen again the next day.

By the time I got to Bratislava, I was in debilitating pain. My tolerance for suffering was giving way to a desperate yearning for relief. Finally I succumbed and went to a pharmacy in Bratislava’s Old Town where the lady attendant behind the counter took pity on me. She sold me some type of pain killers that seemed to be a bit more powerful than ibuprofen, but a little less potent than codeine. This tamped the pain down and life became somewhat bearable again. By the time I arrived in Sopron the weather had warmed considerably. The pain medication had dulled my nerves to the point where I could make it without a dentist for the last few days of my trip. Nevertheless, I was certainly aware that Sopron was the one place I could and probably should have availed myself of a dentist’s services. Signs for dental care in the city, whether on billboards or buildings were noticeable. That was because Sopron was the epicenter of what had become known as dental or tooth tourism.

Dental Tourism in Europe

Dental Tourism in Europe (Credit: REVA Health)

Ivory Smile Lines – The Value Of Dirt Cheap Dentistry
When I first learned that Sopron was the hub for dental tourism in Eastern Europe I was surprised, when I then learned that it had over 300 dentists offering a wide variety of periodontal services I was astounded. In the United States there always seems to be a shortage of dentists. Their services are in high demand. Sometimes it can take weeks to get an appointment unless it is an absolute emergency. The opposite is true in the western Hungarian counties along the border with Austria. They have plenty of dentists, but not a surplus. The laws of supply and demand have brought them here. Dental care in Hungary is dirt cheap when compared to that of countries further to the west. The prices to get crowns and bridges are eye poppingly low. By some estimates they are one-fifth American prices.

I would learn the value of Hungarian dentistry first hand on a later trip. I would get two crowns and a bridge for $454.00. The same dental work would have cost me over $3,000 in the United States. And the work I had done has never given me any trouble. Hungarian dentists are known to do excellent work. From all the ivory smile lines that have grinned back at me during my visits to the country, I would say that is true. I have yet to meet a Hungarian with bad teeth. Why are Hungarian dentists so good? Their education and training are said to be much more comprehensive than that given at dental schools in western Europe and Great Britain. Despite dental associations in Austria and other European Union countries trying to scare their fellow countrymen away from Hungary, the tide of dental day trippers and tourists has yet to recede.

Smiling All The Way To The Bank – Filling A Need
Perhaps the greatest recommendation comes from Austrians who are known for their cleanliness, attention to detail and efficiency. They seem to have no problem with Hungarian dental work. Austrians flock eastward to Sopron, Szombathely and Mosonmagyarvar to get fillings, crowns, bridges, implants or other oral surgeries done. And they are not the only ones. Germans, Swiss, Brits and even Americans now make the pilgrimage to Hungary all in the hopes of an 80% markdown on dental work and pain free periodontics. The price is right, risk low and Sopron a captivating city. I still regret not taking the opportunity to get my upper molar fixed while in Sopron. I thought I could wait, but as I was often reminded by my abscessed tooth, pain happens when you least want or expect it.

Click here for: The Perseverance of Preservation: Endre Csatkai: A Savior For Sopron

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.

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

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.

 

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)