April in Hungarian History

The Poet Attila József, by István Dési Huber, 1928

The Poet Attila József, by István Dési Huber, 1928

I am thirty-two and wise,/Poem, be a big surprise/pretty/ditty This is the opening stanza of “For My Birthday” composed by Attila József in April 1937. Born the son of a labourer and a washerwoman on 11 April 1905 he would go on to produce some of the finest examples of modern European poetry and give Hungary perhaps their greatest poet of the century, although Ady has at least an equal claim to that title. This year marks the centenarian of his birth and of course his homeland has celebrated him, as it has done so for many years. But his contribution is recognised internationally and this year the 10th International Poetry Festival, held in Cuba, was dedicated to him.

Another great Hungarian literary talent of the 20th century who also shares an 11 April birthday, is Sándor Márai who was born in Kassa in what was then known as Upper Hungary but is now Košice in Slovakia. A wonderful novelist his works have enjoyed a renaissance since the change in the political system in 1989. He refused to allow his works to be published in Hungary while the Communists were in power but he was equally opposed to the fascist regimes of the 1930s. His works are now widely available and read in Hungary and several of his works are now available in English including Embers and Conversations in Bolzano.

Sándor Márai in his later years

Sándor Márai in his later years

His dairies, especially in his latter years when he was looking after his sick wife display his immense literary talent and are marked intelligence, self-awareness and poignancy. After she died, he retreated further into isolation, eventually committing suicide in 1989, a few months short of the end of the cold war.

April marks the birth of Joseph Pulitzer, the journalist who was born in the town of Makó on 10 April 1847, emigrated to the United States and was an early proponent of what became known as “yellow journalism” or sensationalist reporting. However his legacy has become much more than that and the prizes that he bequeathed in his will that bears his name has come to regarded as the highest honour for print journalism as well as recognised literary achievements and musical compositions.

The Music of Miklós Rózsa

The Music of Miklós Rózsa

Another Hungarian who emigrated to the United States and made a great success of himself who Miklós Rózsa, born on 18 April 1907 in Budapest and went on to win 3 Oscars for film scores (Spellbound, A Double Life and Ben Hur). He also composed a significant number of other musical works, including a number with a distinctly Hungarian theme such as Variations On A Hungarian Peasant Song and Hungarian Serenade.

Other notable Hungarians to have a birthday in April include composer Leo Weiner, born 16 April 1885, conductor Antal Dorati, born in Budapest on 9 April 1906 , and the father of the Op-Art movement, Victor Vasarely, was born in Pécs on 9 April 1908. And Franz Lehar, composer of ever popular operettas such as The Merry Widow and Land of Smiles was born on 30 April 1870 in Komárom.

But of course while there is much to celebrate in April for Hungarians, the month also marks some of the more tragic events. We could start with 13 April 1241 and the Battle of Theiss (Tisza in Hungarin) where Béla IV was defeated by the Mongols. At the battle the majority of Hungary’s religious and lay dignitaries were killed. And historians estimate that up to half of Hungary’s two million population at that time were victims of this invasion. The invaders left Hungary the following year only after the news of the death of the Great Khan. For some the Mongol invasion and its aftermath mark a critical phase in the development of Hungary’s sense of isolation and loneliness. In a letter by Béla IV, who had miraculously survived the initial onslaught, complained to the Pope, We have received from all sides … merely words. […] We have received no support in our great affliction from any Christian ruler or nation in Europe. This complaint has been repeated at various times ever since by Hungarians.

Count Pál Teleki

Count Pál Teleki

Any discussion of April in Hungarian history should include mention of Count Pál Teleki. Prime Minister, along with Count Bethlen, he was on the architects of the Hungary’s post-Trianon government which as been described as one of “conservative democracy” – The country was dedicated to the recovery of Hungarian territory lost in 1921 and for many the best hope of this was by Hungary allying itself with Germany. Teleki tried to steer a middle course, in what became known as the “pendulum policy”, between what he regarded as two extremes; the liberal left, as exemplified by England, and the hard nationalist right, as exemplified by Germany. However the inherent contradictions of Hungary’s position eventually came to a head. In December 1940 Hungary signed a treaty of “eternal friendship” with Yugoslavia but following an anti-German coup there in March 1941, Hitler decided to attack and demanded Hungary assist. Teleki knew that to do so would drag Hungary into the conflict that would ultimately end in disaster for Hungary. It was too much for Teleki to bear and on 3 April 1941 he killed himself. Although a politically futile gesture, Winston Churchill, on hearing his death, said at empty chair would be reserved at the future peace conference.

Teleki was right of course; the conflict would be a disaster for Hungary. But did he, the creator of the anti-Semitic “Numerus Clauses” legislation, envision that nearly half million Jewish Hungarians would be killed in the Holocaust? A controversial question and perhaps explains why the question of erecting a statute in his memory last year, aroused so much fierce debate. To some, he was a facilitating moralist who was responsible for some of Hungary’s worst inter-war policies, while to others he was a tragic patriot trapped in the impossible logic of the 1930s.

Three years after his suicide, in April 1944, Hungary saw the allied bombing of Budapest and other Hungarian cities begin, and the first deportation of Jewish-Hungarians to the Auschwitz death camp. A year later, on 4 April 1945, Hungary would officially be liberated by the Soviet Union and that day would become a national holiday. It remained so until the change in political system in 1989, a reminder that in history yesterday winners are today’s losers.

I can’t resist ending this article on a lighter note with a lovely Hungarian proverb Higgy az asszonynépnek, mint az áprilisi időjárásnak – Believe in women as in the weather in April.

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