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.

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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)