January 6 is an important day in the history of the Székely people. The Székelys, also known as Szeklers, came into Transylvania either with or before the Magyars. By the 11th century, however, they had adopted Magyar speech and they later formed one of three privileged nations of Transylvania, the others being the Magyars and the Saxons. With their own military and civil organization, Székelys enjoyed autonomy under the Hungarian crown and were, regarded as of noble birth; and therefore exempt from taxation. Sometime in the 13th century the kings assigned them the role of guarding the Transylvanian borders of Hungary and today this part of what is now Romania is known as Szekler Land (Székelyföld)
On that January day in 1764 several hundred Székely women and children were massacred by Austrian troops in the village of Madéfalva (Siculeni). This came about as a result of an order by Habsburg queen Maria Theresa who decreed that the male Székely population was subject to recruitment to serve as border patrols under the command of the Habsburg military authorities. This draft meant between eight and twelve years military service and was, not unnaturally, actively resisted. Many young Székely men fled to neighbouring Moldavia, then a Romanian province. After the massacre at Madéfalva entire Székely villages left the country and settled in Moldavia and Bokovina where they can still be found today. They called themselves csángós which is the Szekely-Magyar word for refugees. Each year their descendants make the pilgrimage back to Madéfalva to remember that tragic January day and sing the Székely Himnusz: “Such sorrowful a past – our millennia of misfortune, /The ravages of Tatars and Turks, and Austrian yoke.”
An equally tragic event is also commemorated in January. The Battle of the Don began on January 12, 1943. The Hungarian 2nd Army, along with other Axis armies, held the Don-front as the German army retreated from the relentless Soviet army. Their position, near the city of Voronezh, was at the eastern edge and most exposed of the front. The various divisions that made up the 2nd Army were poorly equipped, especially for fighting in a vicious Russian winter. The Soviet Army with vastly superior equipment and reserves sensed this was the weakest point and attacked accordingly. By the end of January the Hungarian army, with a total strength of 200,000 had lost some 100,000 dead, 50,000 wounded, many of whom were taken prisoner. Many of those were not even carrying weapons as they were members of forced labour groups conscripted into the army. No nation lost as much blood during World War II in such a short period of time, and in numerical terms it was the worst ever defeat inflicted upon Hungarian armed forces.
However the greatest tragedy of the Battle of Don was that throughout the Communist era the bravery of those left lying in unmarked mass graves in the Soviet Union could not be commemorated; it was forbidden. Today the battle has been restored to its rightful place in Hungarian history and there is a permanent exhibition in the Army Museum.
January sees the birth of a number of notable Hungarian painters. One of my favourites is István Sz?nyi born on January 17th, 1894. He was first a pupil of Károly Ferenczy, then that of István Réti after the war. His early works show that he was in search of the unity of dramatic expressiveness and atmospheric plein air. His works were of great influence on his contemporaries.
In the late 1920s, he settled down in Zebegény where his interest was attracted to atmospheric problems. Based on the Nagybánya tradition, he created a style of his own with sunny colours, soft tones and passive meditative lyra. His style was a typical product of the post-Nagybánya school between the two world wars. His works show a real sense of humanity and a keen sense of nature. Working in Zebegény, he painted pictures of people of the village and those of the Danube-bend. such as “An Evening in Zebegény” (1928), and “Evening” (1934). From the 1940s he was an art teacher and one of his last works was a fresco in the Csepel post office. He died in 1960 in his beloved Zebegény.
Gyula Benczúr was born on January 28, 1844 and was a fine exponent of “historicism” so typical of much of Hungarian art in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This can be seen in the very title of his works: The Farewell Of László Hunyadi and The Baptism Of Vajk After spending his many years abroad he returned to Hungary where he became head of the masters department at the School of Modelling where he exercised a predominant influence over Hungarian art.
Perhaps his most spectacular painting is the monumental The Recapture of Buda Castle painted in 1896 for the millennial celebrations of that year. It can be seen today by visitors to the National Gallery as they ascend the stairs to the first floor. Measuring 3 and half metres high and seven metres wide it shows enormous attention to detail and is one of the finest works of its type.
Other notable birthdays celebrated in January include Sándor Pet?fi who in typical style was born on the first day of the new year in 1823. His life and works are marked by a freshness and vitality that we all hope marks the beginning of any new year. A few weeks later, on January 20th, 1823, another great figure of Hungarian literature was born, Imre Madách. He would go to write one of the great works of world literature, The Tragedy of Man. Although there is nothing uniquely ‘Hungarian’ about this work, its scope and enormous learning are clearly evident in this profound mediation on the nature of man and his universe. It has been translated into over fifty languages and it is still regularly performed in Hungary today.
Of course as in any month, we also note the passing of many great Hungarians who died in this month. including Endre Ady on January 27, 1919, Seress Rezsó, writer of Gloomy Sunday who died on January 11, 1968, the great actress Blaha Lujza passed away on January 18th, 1926 and Ferenc Deák, ‘the sage of the nation’ and key supporter of the 1867 Compromise, passed away on January 28 1876.
But perhaps the most significant death to occur in January was that of King Andrew III who died on January 14, 1301. He was the twenty-third and last member of the House to Árpád and his death marked the end of the dynasty that ruled Hungary since the founding tribes, led by Árpád, arrived in the Carpathian basin in 896. Henceforth Hungary would be ruled by foreign kings; in the 225 years from the end of the House of Árpád up until the catastrophe of Mohács there would be only one native born Hungarian king, Mátyás Hunyadi and even he, perhaps the most admired Hungarian king ever, was Romanian on his father’s side.