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.
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.
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.
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.