Symbolism Versus Semantics – The Czech Republic Or Czechia: A National Name Calling

One of the more bizarre legacies of Eastern European communism concerns the Czech Republic or as a few still insist on calling it, Czechoslovakia. This was brought back to me not long ago when I met a gentleman whose surname was Czech in origin. When I asked him to confirm his ancestry, he nodded in the affirmative. He then proceeded to tell me that his ancestors had immigrated to the United States prior to World War I from “Czechoslovakia.” This statement left me rather bemused. Czechoslovakia did not exist at any point in European history until after the First World War. It was only a nation state for relatively short periods, from 1918 – 1939 and 1945 – 1992. Anyone immigrating to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the land now known as the Czech Republic would have had no conception of Czechoslovakia. Instead they would have stated as their land of origin an empire rather than a nation-state. In this case, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would have served the purposes of bureaucratic paperwork when they entered the United States at Ellis Island.

Official paperwork aside, Czech immigrants to America might have known their homeland as either one of the two historically Czech regions, Bohemia or Moravia. As for Czechoslovakia, it lay in a future most had yet to imagine. An American of Czech descent can be forgiven for their confusion over the current name of the Czech nation. They are not the only ones suffering from confusion. That is because the nation’s name is still being openly debated today. Surprisingly, the citizens of the Czech Republic are divided on the subject.  The choices have now come down to either Czech Republic or Czechia. There is no third option, a la Czechoslovakia, for the simple fact that after the Velvet Divorce in 1993 that geopolitical concoction ceased to exist. It quickly became an anachronism, relegated to the dustbin of history. The Czech Republic became the new name for the Czech nation and that is where the controversy began in earnest.

Simply Stated - The Czech Republic

Simply Stated – The Czech Republic (Credit: High Contrast)

Crawling Slugs – A Nation Not By Any Other Name
Low level controversy over shortening the Czech Republic’s name simmered for years. Many Czechs, including some very famous ones, looked askance at using Czechia, which is an anglicization. In the Czech language “Czechia” is “Cesko” (pronounced Chessko). Among those opposed to the use of “Cesko” was the great Czech politician and playwright Vaclav Havel. He memorably stated that it conjured up images of “crawling slugs.” The consternation over naming conventions really took hold in 2016 when Czech leaders asked the United Nations to list Czechia as the official short version of Czech Republic. Their reasoning had as much to do with symbolism as semantics. It was thought that a shorter name would improve the nation’s image as it would be easier to remember and not lend itself to confusion. Not surprisingly, anecdotal rather than empirical evidence was offered as to how usage of the “Czech Republic” was hurting the nation’s image abroad.

The proposed change left many scratching their heads. What was so confusing about the name Czech Republic? Many Czech nationals and most foreigners found the issue difficult to understand. Admittedly, use of “Republic” in the name fails to distinguish it from many other nations. On the other hand, the Czech Republic was the only European nation in which “Republic” was part of the name’s common form. This anomaly set it apart from other European nations who eschewed their official name when it came to common usage. For instance, “Slovakia” is verbal shorthand for “The Slovak Republic”. By trying to impose Czechia on both nationals and foreigners, Czech leaders were following in the footsteps of their former Slovak partners.

Mouthful of Slugs - Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Mouthful of Slugs – Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Image Is Everything – Cross Cultural Confusion
Unsurprisingly, the changeover to Czechia was met with thinly veiled resistance. Critics of the change found it rather ridiculous. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that much of Czech officialdom failed to embrace the change. This led to cross cultural confusion. For instance, the Czech Embassy in the United States continued to refer to their nation as the Czech Republic, while the U.S. State Department took to calling it Czechia. Such discontinuities were self-defeating, led to greater confusion than ever before and made the whole naming issue seem academic. It is little wonder that the Czech Republic continued to be favored by many in common and official usage, including by this writer. My reason for favoring the Czech Republic was just as absurd as the ongoing debate. From a personal and quite superficial standpoint, Czechia did not sit well with me precisely because it looks and sounds like Chechnya, that ill-fated Russian region. The word conjures up images of a war-torn land marked by violence, terrorism and ethnic tensions. Anyone who has spent time in the Czech Republic knows that it is the opposite of that image.

One argument for changing the name does ring true, it would put the Czech Republic in line with the many other nations which have both official and officially shorter versions of their name. The former being used for bureaucratic purposes, the latter in day to day conversation and the media. This often suits convenience. For instance, no one except bureaucrats ever refer to Germany by its yawn inducing official title of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Russian Federation is known to all except technocrats and legalistic types as Russia. To say otherwise makes one sound officious. The same was true of Russia’s immediate forebear. The Soviet Union was never termed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics except by diplomats, apparatchiks and ossified members of the Politburo. Official names are usually too long and ponderous. The Czech Republic is one of the rare few that is short and rather simplistic. Czechia is even more so, but it is at the disadvantage of being a latecomer to the national name game. As such it now enjoys co-official status, but not common usage.

Powerful Reminders – A Republic In More Than Name
Whether or not one agrees with the many Czechs who think Cesko sounds less than desirable, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that it has too much in common with the Czecho of Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs would rather forget the bad old days of totalitarianism. Anything that serves as a reminder of that time is anathema to an overwhelming majority of the Czech population. Today they live in a republic of which they take great pride. Maybe that is why so many of them prefer to clearly and unequivocally state the Czech Republic as their nation’s name.

 

Chronic Absenteeism –Eastern Europeans Abroad: In Search Of Opportunity

I first became cognizant of Eastern Europeans heading abroad to pursue better economic opportunities 17 years ago while working for a summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Many seasonal stores and shops there employed Latvian students who looked by turns bemused and perplexed at finding themselves spending a summer far from the Baltic Sea. Instead they were on a barrier island along a stretch of distant American shoreline. I distinctly remember talking with one bored looking Latvian girl who was sequestered behind a gas station cash register. When I revealed a bit of my knowledge about her homeland, she looked at me as though I was crazy. Small talk was not her thing. She was there to earn money to tide her over for the coming year at university. The infusion of Latvian seasonal workers to the Carolina coast was nothing compared to what I experienced during my five years living in Wall, South Dakota.

High Plains Drifters – Eastern Europe in Western South Dakota
Wall is home to the world famous Wall Drug, a tourist hot spot par excellence. The drug store’s main claim to fame are its signs which dot interstates in all directions, hundreds of miles in advance of this kitschy attraction. Wall Drug signs can be found in such far flung locales as the North Pole, Nairobi and Amsterdam among many other places. In my travels, I have never seen a Wall Drug sign in Eastern Europe, but that has not stopped the drug store in recruiting legions of workers from these nations.  In that tiny town on the high plains of South Dakota there were Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgars and Macedonians. Enough ethnic diversity to rival the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was settled down for a long, hot summer on the wind blasted landscape of rolling grasslands. I availed myself of the opportunity to hang out with these student age workers and discovered that several had already spent other summers away from their homelands.

Most of them hoped to eventually move abroad after they completed their degrees. Case in point, a young Polish woman who had worked the two previous summers in Wales. Her first job was working in a factory that mass produced baked goods. Putting dollops of cream on top of cakes paid more than many professional jobs did in Poland. Her mother held a decent government job in Poland but pay was mediocre and the work mind numbing. Cake factory work was no one’s idea of excitement, but the pay was worth it. She remarked that bartending in an English pub paid more than any job she could find back in Poland. Eventually after graduating university, she moved to Wales, found a good job and married another Pole who was there for the same reasons.

Rule Britannia - Eastern European living in Great Britain

Rule Britannia – Eastern European living in Great Britain

En Masse Emigration – Going West
The phenomenon of meeting Eastern Europeans far from their homelands continued on a trip around western Turkey several years later. It was there that I met a very nice young couple by the name of Andrew and Agnes. They were from Australia, or at least that was what I first thought. The couple had met while Agnes worked an internship in Australia, she was originally from Hungary. They had married not long before and spent the first year of their marriage on the island of Jersey in the English Channel due to her husband’s job. Agnes related her experiences of a winter spent living in relative isolation, suffering through endless, drenching rainstorms. This was not how she remembered life in Hungary, but she went where her husband’s work took her. A few years later I made the acquaintance of a would be Hungarian filmmaker. To support his projects, he was forced to find IT work, not in Hungary but Great Britain. He went there for the better wages. Working part of the year in Britain was more lucrative than a full-time job in Hungary.

Then there was my wife. Prior to our marriage and her emigration to the United States she spent a couple of summers working well-paying jobs at English language schools in Britain. When we met, she was considering moving there. One of her best friends worked for the United Nations and took a two year position in Jordan because it paid better than the one she had in Hungary. Another emigrated to Canada and immediately found a good paying job, soon thereafter she joined Toronto’s middle class. The more Hungarians I met, the more I realized how many upwardly mobile ones were leaving the country. This should not have been surprising, but it was for me. The media – especially in Great Britain – had been full of stories for years about Poles descending on their country in droves. There were fears throughout Europe of the dreaded Polish plumbers and legions of Romanians and Bulgarians emigrating en masse in search of economic opportunity.

The Rich Get Richer – Westward Flows The Course Of Emigration
Knowing so many Eastern Europeans who had left, were leaving or planned to leave their homelands personalized the situation for me. I began to wonder how these countries could possibly replace all that talent and brainpower, the short answer is that they cannot. Many of their best and brightest have headed abroad in search of a lifestyle that their parents could only have dreamed of. The stultifying corruption of post-communist governments in Eastern Europe forced those without insider connections to emigrate to richer, westernized countries where their job prospects would be based on achievement and merit. This emigration, mainly to the most economically developed European Union member nations, is unprecedented in the history of Eastern Europe.

According to the United Nations, fully 6% of Eastern Europe’s population emigrated between 1992 and 2015. That figure computes to an 18 million people, equivalent to the combined population of Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania. All that human capital is hard at work in western countries, innovating, creating and producing. The rich get richer. Meanwhile Eastern Europe fights to maintain its place in an increasingly globalized world. Strides have been made in many Eastern European countries to lure talent back home or keep it from going abroad. Trying to reverse a quarter century of emigration from east to west will take time and most importantly, money.

A Passion For Books – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek: Creating Transylvania’s Greatest Library (Part Two)

When it comes to collecting, there is the getting and there is the having. The end goal may well be the having, but the getting is often much more exciting. The thrill of the hunt, the art of the chase and the joy of the find can keep a collector searching for ever greater discoveries. Perhaps this was the reason that Count Samuel Teleki De Szek dedicated sixty years of his life to collecting books for a library that would surpass anything found in Transylvania at that time and still holds an exalted reputation today. As he went about creating one of the great libraries in Europe, Teleki spent more time collecting books than he did reading them. Accumulating 40,000 books is no easy task and was just as demanding as any course of study. At a time when long distance travel was extremely difficult, getting them back to Teleki’s estate in the heart of Transylvania was no small order. Despite such difficulties Teleki persevered.

His passion for book collecting, the humanities and scientific literature went hand in hand, spurring him onward to overcome all obstacles in the search for works of enlightened reason. This was the genesis of the world famous Teleki-Bolyai Library (Teleki-Teka in Hungarian/Bibliotheca Telekiani in Romanian). Starting in the mid-18th century his efforts began to pay off. The volumes he collected were those which stimulated Teleki’s interest in the intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment. He set out to methodically create a repository of the most up to date intellectual ideas of the age. This would slowly transform into a library of scientific and humanistic learning, not just for himself, but eventually all Transylvanians. Teleki spared little expense in his efforts to acquire the best volumes. He was a learned man on a mission, one that would span the rest of his long and eventful life.

An Open Book - Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and one of his many books

An Open Book – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and one of his many books (Credit: Teleki-Bolyai Library)

Collector’s Curiosity – An Insatiable Pursuit Of Knowledge
Count Teleki was a man with a passion for learning. He sought to make his mark, by collecting an unprecedented amount of knowledge in his library and reforming public education in Transylvania. His library was part of that process. Both the scope and scale of it were unprecedented, especially when one considers how far Transylvania was from the great centers of European learning. Teleki was forced to cast a very wide net in searching for both the best and rarest books. His acquisition plan was informed as much by logistics as anything else. Documentation shows that he purchased books from twenty-five different European cities and towns. Though his collection was soon growing from the hundreds into the thousands he did not sacrifice quality for quantity. Rare books were sought with the same dedicated zeal with which he pursued more recent works that advanced the cause of enlightened humanism.

Among the rarer volumes, Teleki managed to procure fifty-two incunabula, books printed prior to the year 1501. One of the most valuable was a Corvina codex that had been part of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus’ famous library (Bibliotheca Corviniana). And it was not just rare books that piqued Teleki’s collecting curiosity. He also managed to acquire over a thousand old Hungarian prints. Teleki was a man who knew great art when he saw it, most especially when it could be found in illustrated form within books. World famous artists such as Rubens and Durer, were examples of the type of world class artists whose illustrations were to be found in the books Teleki purchased. There were also fine editions of the greatest classical works and scientific reference works. Teleki spared no expense in building his collection.

Vienna Calling – Serendipity For A Master Planner
Serendipity also played a role in Teleki’s ability to acquire much of his collection. While he dedicated his life to collecting books and advancing education, politics was his chosen career. Befitting a wealthy aristocrat from one of Transylvania’s most powerful families, he rose to political prominence through the ranks of county administration. After a decade of successful public service in his homeland, Teleki was selected by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to serve as the Chancellor-Assistant of Transylvania in 1787. Then in 1791, he was named Chancellor of Transylvania, a position he would occupy for the next three decades until his death in 1822. These positions meant he would spend a great deal of the latter part of his life in Vienna. They also placed Teleki close to one of the most enlightened royal courts in Europe. Most importantly, he would now be living in Vienna, which was one of the epicenters of the European book trade. This put him much closer to important points of contact who could assist him in procuring both old and new works. His time in the city was crucial to acquiring a world class book collection.

During his time in Vienna, Teleki not only bought books, but also spent a considerable amount of time cataloging them. The upshot of this effort was the publication of a four-volume catalog of his library twenty-two years in the making. In this work, he laid out a plan for how the library was to be a public institution. The library would be housed in Marovasarhely (Targu Mures in Romanian), the Transylvanian city that was closest to his estate. The Baroque building in which it would be housed had been inherited by Teleki through his wife’s family. A separate wing for the library was constructed at the turn of the 19th century. That same wing still holds the library today. Proving that Teleki was not only a world class book collector, but also a master planner.

Chancellor of Transylvania - Count Samuel Teleki De Szek

Chancellor of Transylvania – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek (Credit: Teleki-Bolyai Library)

Reasonable Pursuits – A Humanist At Heart
Teleki was not just a bibliophile, he was also a publisher and an advocate for the advancement of education, science and culture. His philanthropic efforts included providing support for students from Transylvania to study abroad, offering them the same experience that had transformed his own life. He also funded a wide range of scholars. Teleki also managed to find time for publishing. His most notable literary achievement was twenty years in the making, as he managed to publish the complete works of Janos Pannonius, the Renaissance poet, diplomat and bishop whose writings were among the earliest humanist writings in Hungary. Teleki was a Renaissance man as well, though he lived, learned and studied in the Baroque period.  His efforts to accumulate, catalog and codify knowledge in the furtherance of enlightenment and reason took learning to a whole new level in Transylvania. His library collection has kept it there.

Click here for: A Final Resting Place – Shelf Life: The Library of Zsuzanna Bethlen de Iktar at Teleki-Teka (Part Three)

The Coming Of The Vizslas –  Conquering Hearts: Hungary’s Iconic Companion

There are certain aspects of history that will never be known. It is a daunting thought to consider that way less is known about the past than anyone can possibly imagine. Put simply, much more has been lost than preserved. This is especially true when it comes to pre-modern history. Before the era of mass literacy (largely a 20th century phenomenon), documentation was limited. The past only survives in fragments, whether on paper or parchment, in slowly disintegrating ruins or beneath the earth waiting to be uncovered by excavation. Because of this incomplete record of the past, historians and scientists are often left to amass evidence wherever possible. This makes it nearly impossible to say when and where many things began.

Such is the case with the Magyar Vizsla, that most iconic of Hungarian sporting dogs. Ancestors of the Vizsla are believed to have been with the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes when they first arrived and conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. Exactly when the Vizsla breed originated is open to conjecture. The starting point for when a breed of hound resembling the Vizsla enters history is not open to speculation. It is commonly given as 1357, the year generally agreed upon when a Vizsla first appears in the historical record.

Distant Ancestors - Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

Distant Ancestors – Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

A Gift To The Future – Illuminated History
In the mid-14th century, King Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1342- 1382) decreed that an illuminated chronicle be created depicting the history, culture and life of Hungary. Officially it was known by its Latin name of Chronicon Pictum or Chronicon (Hungariiae) Pictum (also known as the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle), which in translation means “Illuminated Hungarian Chronicle”. That name is an apt description of the magnificent volume created. It contains 147 illuminated pictures (as well as text) that provide some of the best visual information on the culture, court life and lifestyle in the upper echelons of medieval Hungarian society during the reign of Louis I.

The illuminated artistic renderings are a tribute to the artistic ability of Mark Kalti, a priest who produced the work. Such was the combination of intimacy and accuracy in the Chronicon’s that it took Kalti nearly fifteen years to complete the work. It was then given by Louis to King Charles of France upon the engagement of the Louis’ daughter to Charles’ son. It would turn out to be more than a gift between royals, it was also a gift to the future that would come to inform a great deal of history, including that of the Vizsla.

Kalti’s work included the first documented representation of a dog resembling a Vizsla. It is found in a section of the Chronicon that provides information on falconry. Prior to the advent of firearms, hunters relied on falcons as their weapons of choice in hunting wild game. The role of finding and pointing out such animals was left to hounds that were most likely ancestors of the modern Vizsla. There has been a great deal of speculation as to what dog is portrayed in Kalti’s rendering. It was likely a yellow Turkish hound or a breed of hound from Transylvania. The hound’s appearance in the Chronicon is similar enough to the modern Vizsla that many believe this to be one of its forebears. Other references to dogs of similar stature and skill can be found in Hungarian documentation throughout the centuries leading right up to the modern age

The Vizsla - Hungarian Born & Bred

The Vizsla – Hungarian Born & Bred (Credit: Antoniodog)

A Rare Breed – On The Edge Of Extinction
During the period from the 18th through the mid-20th century, the Vizsla was quite literally an aristocratic dog. Most of the owners were the social elites of Hungary. This meant that a relatively small number were bred. Ownership was closely guarded by those who saw the Vizsla as much a symbol of wealth and refinement as it was a hunting dog. By the late 19th century, the Vizsla had become overwhelmed by pointer breeds in Hungary that were dominated by an influx of English setters and German Weimaraners. The number of pure bred Vizslas left in Hungary was miniscule. If something was not done, the Vizsla would soon become extinct. A group of breeders scoured the countryside, where they were able to collect a dozen pure breds. It was from this stock that the Vizsla rose once again in numbers and prominence over the course of the first four decades of the 20th century. Their growth prospects look assured until they took a disastrous turn for the worse during the Second World War.

Like everything else Hungarian, the Vizsla breed suffered irreparable harm when the fighting between German and Soviet forces came to Hungary during the latter part of 1944. As the Red Army fought its way across the country, the Vizslas, much like their aristocratic owners were subjected to murderous treatment. They were possessions of the wrong class, in the wrong country, at the wrong time. This led to the decimation of nearly all Vizslas in Hungary. The situation was dire by war’s end. Once again, the Vizsla was facing extinction. Fortunately, some of their aristocratic owners who had fled to the west took their Vizslas with them. Though they once again numbered little more than a dozen, this Vizsla stock would provide a resurgence in numbers. What also helped matters was that Vizslas were taken abroad to peaceful and prosperous countries such as the United States and Canada where they would soon thrive.

Growth Spurt - A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary

Growth Spurt – A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary (Credit: Adam Ziaja)

The Embodiment of Hungary – A Special Breed In A Special Land
The transport of Vizslas to the west following the Second World War was the beginning of a buildup that led to the healthy population that can be found throughout the world today. They have also returned to prominence in Hungary, valued as hunting dog, loyal companion and family pet. Their intelligence, beauty and grace has made them highly valued. In many ways, Vizslas are reflective of the land where they originated and the Hungarians who revere them. They are a special breed in a special land, seen by many as an embodiment of Hungarian greatness. To see a Vizsla in the Hungarian countryside is an unforgettable experience, a fascinating reminder of this iconic breed’s deep roots in the land of the Magyars.

A Breed Apart – The Hungarian Vizslas of Edgemont South Dakota: Going To The Dogs

According to a website that references U.S. census records in calculating the ethnicity of cities and towns in the United States, the most Hungarian place in South Dakota is Selby, a small town located just east of the Missouri River in the north part of the state. In case you did not know, South Dakota has never been known as a hotbed of Magyar immigration. That makes Selby something of an anomaly. Supposedly 2.88% of the town’s residents claim direct Hungarian descent. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it is more than twice the percentage of any other town in the state.

My own experience with the town did not reveal any signs of Hungarians. I traveled through Selby twelve years ago, during the dead of winter, only stopping to top off the gas tank. The temperature was hovering in the single digits and few people were around. It would have been an unlikely occurrence to meet any Hungarians there, almost as unlikely as Selby having the highest proportion of ethnic Hungarians of any town in South Dakota. I have no idea why a handful of Hungarians settled in the area, but this little piece of trivia I came across online lodged itself in my memory. Later, I wondered if it was true, especially after visiting another rural area in South Dakota. This is where I discovered another settlement with a modest proportion of Hungarians. The number and type of Hungarians turned out to a surprise, especially considering the location.

Ready For Action - A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose

Ready For Action – A Vizsla In Standard Statuesque Pose (Credit: Tito Hentschel)

Dogged Existence – Living On The Edge
Edgemont, South Dakota lies on the edge of the southern Black Hills in the extreme southwestern part of the state. It is a forlorn town not on the way to anywhere other than equally remote parts of eastern Wyoming. Edgemont is little more than a service center for the ranches spread out across a vast area beyond the town limits. The town has been bleeding population for years and looks the part, with plenty of abandoned buildings in the central business district. The young leave, birth rates decline, the remaining population tends toward the elderly. On the surface, this seems to be about the only thing Edgemont has in common with anywhere in Hungary. The rural areas in both places are slowing dying off. Edgemont can hardly afford to lose any citizens either in the town or surrounding countryside.

From what I have seen there is only one stable population group in the area. Just 15 minutes north of town, tucked away where the Black Hills begin to rise, is a community consisting entirely of Hungarians and Germans. One which manages to replenish itself year after year. Their home can be found off a dirt road bordered by sandstone and intermittent pine forest. This community lives without the worries or stress found in more populated locales. What is the secret to their success? It is quite simple, the community has gone to the dogs. That is because two distinct breeds call the area home, they are Hungarian Vizslas and German Weimaraners sired at Blue Creek Kennels. The Vizslas sometimes number as many as twenty. If we divide 20 by the latest population figure of 711 for Edgemont, then that means the Vizslas are 2.8% of the population of Edgemont. That puts them on equal footing with those of ethnic Hungarian descent in Selby. And unlike Hungarians in Selby, the Vizslas of Edgemont are pure breeds with a blood line uncorrupted by interbreeding.

Pick of the Litter - Blue Creek Kennel

Pick of the Litter – Blue Creek Kennel (Credit: Blue Creek Kennel)

Pointed In The Right Direction – On The Hunt For Vizslas
Of course, Vizslas are not people, but they are certainly Hungarian. The Vizsla has become synonymous with Hungary and vice versa. It is their homeland, from where they first came to prominence and then spread around the world. They have also become a favorite breed of those searching for the finest hunting dogs in the world. Vizslas are pointer dogs valued for their keen instincts which make them masters at locating prey. They were prized by Hungarian aristocrats for their prowess on hunts and have lost none of that over the centuries. These same qualities are still valued by hunters all over Europe and North America today. They also make excellent companion dogs, known for their calm temperament and loyalty, the Vizsla is now as much a family as it is a hunting dog. Such traits convinced me and my wife to purchase a Vizsla from their newest home away from Hungary just outside of Edgemont.

It only took us five minutes to select the one we felt would be right for us. Standing affectionately, but calmly behind several other Vizslas leaping and lunging forward, was an eight month old pup with the stature and grace befitting one of the most regal dogs in the world. This Vizsla was soon in our arms and stole our hearts. We named him Tisza, after the great river of eastern Hungary. The river can never flow as fast as he can run. Tisza, like other Vizslas, can run at speeds up to 40 mph (64 kph). His personality turned out to be just as exuberant as his energy level. It took him no time to become a beloved member of our family, a constant reminder of the proud and refined nature of this most beloved Hungarian breed.

Tisza the Vizsla - A Hungarian Icon

Tisza the Vizsla – A Hungarian Icon

Something Of A Miracle – Return Of The Vizslas
The fact that Tisza and other Vizslas can be found in South Dakota is somewhat surprising, especially in a place as remote as the area around Edgemont. The fact that Vizslas can be found anywhere in the world today is downright astonishing. They are something of a miracle, brought back from near extinction in the mid-20th century. Hungary’s calamitous 20th century brought about the end of its aristocracy which had done so much to raise Vizslas to prominence. Many Vizslas suffered the same fate as their masters, but some managed to escape. They were carried away from communist Hungary by their owners, continuing their history which starts with documentation all the back to the late Middle Ages and continues today in such far flung areas as the American Great Plains. The Vizsla lives on both in the present and past.

Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

The Mayerling Incident was a tabloid ready controversy filled with rampant speculation, salacious gossip, bizarre rumors of ridiculous conspiracies and mysterious cover-ups. Fact and fiction were interwoven to the point that they became inseparable. The powers that be changed their story multiple times. Something akin to an approximation of the truth slowly came to light. The press in Austria was heavily censored, but further west in France and Great Britain speculation flowed freely, some of this crossed back over the border into Austria. The entire drama threatened to undermine an already weakened and rickety monarchy that was already having enough trouble just trying to deal with social and technological changes. Someone would have to take the blame for this self-inflicted debacle and it would not be the monarchy. Rudolf’s femme fatale never stood a chance.

United by fate - Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

United by fate – Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

Obscured By Spiritualism – Underwhelmed By The Unresolved
The court of official propaganda and public opinion was not kind to Mary Vetsera. She was viewed as a willing accomplice of a mentally troubled Rudolf. Her age did not help matters. She was thirteen years younger than Rudolf, a mere teenager who lacked the emotional maturity to understand what she was getting herself into. Her mother had sought fame in the highest aristocratic social circles for a family that were newcomers on the Viennese social scene. Their background in the near east limited just how far the family might climb, but Mary would end up showing just how far they could fall. Her mother was not allowed to attend the daughter’s funeral. Mary was buried alone at a spot the Crown Prince had selected for the two of them. Instead, Rudolf ended up in the Imperial Crypt, but only after officialdom ensured that his suicide was ruled as the result of mental problems.

As for the Mayerling hunting lodge, it was transformed into a Carmelite Convent where nuns could eternally pray for Rudolf’s soul. A very odd thing to do to at a murder-suicide site. While the gesture was heartfelt – Franz Josef wept at the convent’s dedication – such a transformation was incongruous at best, insincere at worst. This was the main reason I found the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling to be one of the most underwhelming historical places I have visited. My suspicion was that there had been a tacit agreement to keep the exact truth of what happened obscured by spiritualism. Thus, it was decided to create something of a memorial and leave it at that. The fact that the mystery of Mayerling may or may not have been solved kept interest from visitors such as myself high. It drew me and thousands of others to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling each year.  Probably not what the Habsburg authorities had in mind.

Tragic Destiny - Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident

Tragic Destiny – Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident (Credit Schuhmann – Bundesmobilienverwaltung MD 065518)

A Shattering Effect – From Debilitation To Destabilization
Today a very strict order of nuns resides at the Jagdschloss in relative seclusion. The chapel now stands in the spot where the main actions of the incident occurred or so I was told. The facts from the investigation of what happened that day were sealed and then destroyed by decree of Emperor Franz Joseph. His wife Elisabeth is said to have never recovered from her son’s death. The same has been said of the Emperor. The royal couple did stay married, though they grew further apart. Mayerling had a shattering effect on the future course of the Empire and the 20th century. Rudolf’s replacement as heir to the throne was none other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who would have his own tragic destiny.

As time passed after the murder-suicide at Mayerling, Rudolf, the once Crown Prince of Austria gained a reputation as a tragic figure whose death changed history for the worse. This was predicated on the assumption that if Rudolf had lived long enough to become emperor he would have reformed Austria-Hungary and the monarchy would have had a better chance of survival. Such an idea overlooks the fact that Rudolf’s health was already in rapid decline at the time of his suicide mainly due to venereal disease. He had contracted either gonorrhea or syphilis from his endless conquests of women. The disease only served to intensify a nervous condition that had plagued him throughout his adult life. He had also suffered from debilitating migraine headaches for several years.  Only thirty years old when he died, photos taken in the months before then showed Rudolf as a prematurely aged man.

Imperial Crypt - Crown Prince Rudolf's coffin lies to the right of his parents' coffins

Imperial Crypt – Crown Prince Rudolf’s coffin lies to the right of his parents’ coffins (Credit Bwag)

Resting On Turmoil – The Extent Of One Man’s Sorrow
The Crown Prince had been trying to alleviate his various maladies with morphine and heavy drinking. Those only served to have the opposite effect on his condition. In addition to his physical ailments, Rudolf’s marriage was a disaster. His wife, Crown Princess Stephanie of Belgium, was sterile because he had transmitted venereal disease to her. He did not find her physically or psychologically attractive, the two were a poor match. Their relationship only grew worse as the years went on. Each lived an increasingly separate existence. By the start of 1889, Rudolf was a man living on the edge. He had already tried to get Princess Stephanie involved in a lover’s suicide pact. She demurred. He did the same with one of his mistresses, an ex-singer, by the name of Mizzi Kaspar, who dutifully reported it to the police. The authorities failed to report this to either the Emperor or Empress. The upshot of all this was that Rudolf’s parents failed to realize the extent of Rudolf’s woes.

Rudolf would likely have died long before having the chance to assume the throne. Franz Josef did not die until 1916, twenty-seven years after the Mayerling incident occurred. By that time Rudolf would have been 57. There is only a very slim chance that he would have lived a quarter century longer suffering so badly from disease. Rudolf probably realized his condition would continue to deteriorate. The future for him looked bleak, both physically and politically. As for the latter, he had been frozen out of all decision making in the empire. He was considered untrustworthy, impulsive and at times had been downright subversive. Publishing his views in the liberal press under barely disguised fronts. His father would not hear of an annulment to Rudolf’s marriage. His mother, Empress Elisabeth, while close in temperament to her son, was consumed with her own mental and physical problems. It is little wonder that Rudolf ended his life, to have done it in such sensational fashion led to speculation that still continues right up through today.  Mayerling’s fame will forever rest on Rudolf’s turmoil.

Click here for: Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

His power to evoke passion was legendary. He could send women swooning just by running his fingers across the ivory keys of a piano. The world fell to its feet in the presence of his musical powers. He created, composed and conjured entirely new worlds of sound from multitudes of magnificent keystrokes. Females were especially prone to his mysterious musical powers. Because of this, he fell in and out of romance. In even greater numbers, he fell in and out of bed. Fathering any number of children with true loves and midnight mistresses. Because of his reputation for romances, both sweeping and fleeting, it is hard to imagine the Hungarian musical impresario, Franz Liszt, ever settling down in marriage. He never quite did, but he was willing to try. When the opportunity arose to marry a countess, Liszt was more than willing to oblige.

Franz Liszt - The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Franz Liszt – The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Reverence, Rudeness & Respect – Prestigious Possibility
Among the many personality traits of Franz Liszt, one of the more pronounced was his snobbery. Like most snobs, the one thing he could never stomach was others who thought they were better than him. There is nothing a snob abhors more than another snob. Liszt could not stand to be looked down upon due to the simple fact that he himself looked down on the world. His musical ability gave him an exalted position both socially and culturally. For Liszt, it was normal to be treated with the utmost adoration. This was not so much a privilege, as it was his right. Thus, if anyone in the aristocracy or royalty (the elite classes of Europe during the 19th century) did not show him the proper respect, Liszt would reciprocate with rudeness. Conversely, when treated with the proper reverence, Liszt could be gracious, humble and kind. One of Liszt’s great ambitions in life was to climb the social ladder. His musical talent opened the world of aristocracy up to him. He most often played for audiences filled with the finest aristocrats in Europe. During his concert tours he met large numbers of princes and princesses. It was the latter that offered him not only the romance he craved, but also the prestigious possibility of marriage into high society.

On a concert tour in 1847 Liszt met the Polish noblewoman Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein while performing in Kiev. The Countess lived in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire. Her wealth was beyond belief. She owned multiple estates with thousands of serfs working the land. The Countess was something of a paradox. She enjoyed elite social status while at the same time being fanatically religious. The Countess wrote long winded books on religious subjects. Her literary output was lengthy in the extreme, with works that would put War and Peace to shame for their sheer volume of words. Such traits attracted Liszt to her. The Countess’ religious fervor was matched by his own. While the Countess’ social standing appealed to Liszt’s snobbishness. The Countess though, was much more to Liszt than just one of his many mistresses. He would eventually become an abbe (Catholic clergyman) in the Catholic Church. Their kindred religious spirits led to an unlikely romance between the two. By all accounts the Countess was unattractive, homely and serious minded. A sort of uber wealthy plain jane of Russian Ukraine. Liszt hardly cared because of her aristocratic background. There was only one problem, the Countess was married.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 - The year she met Liszt

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 – The year she met Liszt

Life With Liszt – A High Price To Pay
The Countess’ husband was a Russian military officer who went by the exquisite name of Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg. They had one child, a daughter, but the couple were soon living apart. It was a marriage for the sake of titles, prestige and wealth. Love was not a consideration. The Countess spent years trying to get a divorce from Prince Nikolaus. She began living with Liszt in Weimar a year after they met. After two face-to-face meetings with the pope, she nearly succeeded. On October 22, 1861, the Countess and Liszt were due to be married in Rome. Liszt arrived the night before the wedding fully expecting to get married for the first time. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on his 50th birthday. It would never happen. Intervention by The Countess’ husband and the Russian Tsar stopped the marriage. The Russian government had impounded her estates.

If the Countess had gone through with the marriage, she would have lost a fortune. Her lone child, a daughter by Prince Nikolaus, would have had her marriage prospects irreparably damaged. Thus, the marriage failed. The Countess and Liszt eventually grew apart. She was disgusted by his numerous affairs. He was an inveterate womanizer who took the Countess’ love for granted. She eventually grew fed up and moved to Rome. What Liszt was doing with the Countess says much more about him than it does her. Liszt longed for adulation, an aristocratic title would have been another stepping stone to greater prestige. It never happened, but it did not stop him from trying. For the Countess, Liszt was like a dream that was slowly defeated by reality. The Countess was unique though. Her religious fervor knew no bounds. She was loyal to Liszt and that loyalty came at an astronomical price. She squandered much of her riches for the pursuit of passion and a spiritual kinship.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Romance & Religion – Kindred Spirits
In the end, a life together for Liszt and the Countess was not meant to be. After the attempt at marriage failed, the Countess became just another woman for Liszt in an unending succession of them. A few he loved, most he did not. The love that had existed between the two of them faded. In her post-Liszt life, the Countess spent years writing religious tomes. Her magnum opus was a 24-volume work, Exterior Causes of the Interior Weakness of the Church. Not exactly a page turner. It had the added drawback that on average each volume was over a thousand pages in length. No one remembers these books. For that matter, no one remembers the Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein except for the romance and religion she shared with the famous Franz Liszt.

Click here for: A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad

I liked Sopron so much that for the second day in a row I took to the surrounding countryside for a day trip. The attraction of Koszeg was such that I could not resist. When a place is given the title “Jewel Box of Hungary” it deserves a visit. From the sound of it, Koszeg was what Hungary would have been without World Wars and communism. That is if the country had been left to develop on its own without foreign interference. Of course, every European country could say the same thing, but in Hungary there was a sense that history had been unkind to it. That Hungary’s greatness had been thwarted by foreign interlopers. As for Koszeg, it was said to have largely escaped wartime damage. That would turn out to be only half true, depending on what war was being referenced. I would discover the damage from World War II was more human than structural, whereas the damage from the Ottoman Turks was both.

Before making these discoveries I first had to find my way to Koszeg. By train this was not as simple as the map made it look. There was not a direct line by rail between Sopron and Koszeg, though the latter was just 45 kilometers south of the former. The problem was that Austria was in the way. Thus, I would first have to travel to Szombathely by train and then take a short branch line to Koszeg. I found this to be an annoyance. That was until I arrived at Szombathely, where I was surprised and delighted by the train that would take me to Koszeg. The train only consisted of two cars, looking more like an elongated bus on rails. Covered in yellow paint, with a few green markings, the cars were eye catching and lively looking. The branch line to Koszeg was worth it just for the ride on this little train.

Koszeg - Jurisics ter in the foreground

Koszeg – Jurisics ter in the foreground

The Last Hold Outs – A Commander & A Castle
After arriving at the railway station in Koszeg I discovered it was a bit of a walk to the town center. When I arrived in Koszeg’s Old Town I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was so colorful and vibrant that I could almost taste it. The Renaissance and Baroque era buildings were coated in a rich array of colors that made the cityscape look good enough to eat. There was architectural eye candy on offer throughout the cobbled squares and streets. The heart of quaint old Koszeg was Jurisics ter (Jurisics Square). That was a name that would soon become familiar to me. Jurisics would forever be associated with Koszeg, albeit a very different one from the marvelously atmospheric town that exists today. It was Nikola Jurisics who not only saved Koszeg from the Ottoman Turkish threat, but some would also argue Vienna. For his efforts, the castle had been named after him.

Of all the buildings worth seeing in Koszeg, Jurisics Var (Jurisics Castle) was one of the least impressive. Remnants of its old walls were so busted and battered that they did not look particularly evocative of any great defensive work. Behind them stood the inner castle, a group of towers and buildings covered in a brownish-red coat of color that appeared a little too refined for my taste. Meanwhile the entryway looked like the run up to a large inn. It was hard to imagine this was the same castle that had resisted nineteen assaults by the Ottoman army of Sultan Suleiman. Truth be told, the present-day castle was only a rough approximation of what had stood on the site during the siege of 1532. Most of that castle had been consumed by a great fire in 1777. The town had honored its history by having the castle reconstructed.

Nikola Jurisics statue - Entrance to Jurisics Castle

Nikola Jurisics statue – Entrance to Jurisics Castle (Credit: Pan Peter 12)

Creation By Destruction – To Do The Impossible
Fire was a recurring theme in the history of Koszeg. The town had been torched several times, more by accident or incident rather than at the hands of foreign foes. The threat of fire was of such concern that smokers incurred large fines. Anyone suspected of arson could be termed a “villain” and sentenced to fifty lashes. Such painful punishments certainly commanded the attention of potential offenders. While fire was a mortal threat, it also helped create the Koszeg which stands today. Disastrous infernos were an opportunity for urban renewal. As a history buff, I would have been interested to see the original wooden and mud caulked houses of medieval Koszeg, but I doubt this would have brought in many tourists. The current townscape was much more pleasing to aesthetic sensibilities, even if much of the architectural history did not reach back any earlier than the 17th century.

It was an earlier aspect of Koszeg’s history that Jurisics Castle recalled, if not in form at least in spirit. This was where Jurisics commanded a force of 700 men facing an Ottoman Army numbering close to a hundred thousand. What ensued was a 25 day siege, that halted the Ottoman movement toward Vienna. From the start Jurisics’ force was close to the point of exhaustion, but somehow held out long enough to exhaust the Ottoman Army’s will to fight. How did such an outmanned and outgunned force manage to hold out against incredible odds? In a word , leadership. Nikola Jurisics was more than a commander, he was a leader. He convinced his ragtag group of defenders – mainly Hungarian peasants – that they could do the impossible. Jurisics and the defenders also got lucky. Heavy rains came at the end of August, which helped persuade the Sultan to withdraw his troops. Thus, the siege of Koszeg may helped save Vienna from the impending Ottoman threat. Paradoxically, Koszeg also saved the Habsburgs at the expense of Hungary. Ottoman rule over much of Hungary solidified in the years after the siege.

The Last Hold Out - Jurisics Castle

The Last Hold Out – Jurisics Castle

Point of Departure – Historical Developments
As for Koszeg it had managed to escape Ottoman occupation. This allowed it to develop more normally, akin to that of Austria rather than Hungary. That development brought in German merchants who spearheaded the economy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet it was also Germans who brought the next wave of destruction to the town. This destruction left the city’s beautiful Old Town untouched. The same could not be said for Koszeg’s small Jewish community. They were not so lucky. I would never have known this, except for a photo I would see in a book many months after my visit. That photo made me look at Koszeg quite differently, specifically its train station, which In 1944 had acted as a point of departure to Auschwitz.

Click here for:  Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

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)