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

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.