Hillersleben: Spatial Experiences of a Hungarian Jew in a German DP Camp, 1945

András Szécsényi
Corvinus University of Budapest
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 3  (2020): 470-490 DOI: 10.38145/2020.3.470

The paper focuses on Hungarian Jews who had been deported from Hungary to Bergen-Belsen and ended up in a Jewish displaced persons camp (hereinafter referred DP) before the liberation near the settlement of Hillersleben in the Magdeburg district of Sachsen-Anhalt, one of the states of Germany from April to September, 1945. In the first section of this paper, I explore the historical framework of this Hungarian group based on the current historiography and some narrative sources. In the second (main) part, I offer a case study in which I analyze the spatial experiences of György Bognár, a survivor of this aforementioned group. This camp alone did not play any special role from the perspective of Hungarian survivors. On the contrary, it provides evidence of the typical experiences of Jews in Germany in 1945. Giving voice to ego-documents and mainly to Bognár’s diary, I offer an account of how a 16-year old Hungarian Jew perceived and described the space in which he lived in this “half-life” between concentration camp and liberation. Primarily by using his diary entries, I attempt to offer insights into the spatial experiences of the DPs, though I also draw on other sources. I also explore the main markers of the maps he drew of the camp. I compare these sources with the notes I took during a visit to the site in 2016. My primary goal is to use spatial analyzes of the available narrative sources to further an understanding of how someone in one of the DP camps perceived his surroundings. In the last section, I reflect briefly on how the territory and the space of the former DP camp changed function after the camp was closed.

Keywords: Hungarian Holocaust, Bergen-Belsen, Hillersleben, DP camp, concentration camp, diary, deportation, evacuation, mental map


The Hungarian historiography hasn’t dealt with the history of the approximately 14,000 Hungarian Jewish people who were deported to Bergen-Belsen.1 International research, in contrast, has focused prominently on this giant camp complex since the 1990s. ,2 as well as on the systematic and multi-aspect discussion of the history of the German camps.3 The evacuation of Belsen, which was in a state of chaos in its final days, was ordered by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS on April 4. Himmler wanted to put people who were still capable of working to effective use for the Nazi cause. These kinds of evacuations, which could also be described as death marches, had already been on the agenda for months when the German state was collapsing. Bergen-Belsen was also an evacuation destination: tens of thousands of people, including several thousand Hungarian Jews, had been brought (or forced to walk) to the camp from the eastern camps close to the front lines (such as Auschwitz and from Gross-Rosen) between December 1944 and early April 1945.4 The target of the evacuation from Bergen-Belsen was Theresienstadt (today: Terezín, Czech Republic). The SS has initiated three transports on three consecutive days. The first train, later referred to as the “lost transport” in the secondary literature, departed on April 8. It had to return several times, as American bombers destroyed the tracks several times. This train finally stopped on a riverbank to the south of Berlin, on the edge of Tröbitz, and this is where the Soviet forces liberated the “passengers.”5 Another transport departed from Bergen-Belsen on April 10. Its passengers were also almost all Hungarian Jews (mostly from the Hungarian camp, a camp within Bergen-Belsen that was established in July 144, and from the labor camp parts of the larger camp). The latter reached its destination: the train, equipped with three days of food per person, reached Theresienstadt after 12 days with heavy loss of life, where the Soviet forces liberated the prisoners.

Hillersleben as a Space of “Half-Freedom”

In addition to the abovementioned two trains, there was another one which departed with more than 2,000 prisoners on April 7.6 Its passengers were brought Hungarian camp of the the Bergen-Belsen camp, which was already overcrowded and where a typhus epidemic had broken out.7 The train came up against an advancing American armored unit between Farsleben and Zielitz in the Magdeburg area on April 13. The Wehrmacht soldiers who had been guarding the prisoners had fled the previous night, and the prisoners were waiting for the allied units. Of the roughly 2,000–2,500 prisoners on the train, 1,5288 had been deported to one of the concentration or extermination camps from Hungary.

History instructor Matthew A. Rozell, who has offered an account of the story of the train and the liberation of the prisoners it bore exclusively on the basis of narrative sources.9 According to the recollections of the American armored soldiers (units 12 and 13 D of the American armored battalion 743) and of the survivors, the prisoners were euphoric when they saw the American “liberators,” and this moment became a lifetime memory for all of them.10

The Americans accommodated the ex-prisoners in the nearby village of Farsleben for the next two or three days, i.e. April 13, 14, and 15. They moved them into the houses owned by the locals, and they commandeered food and supplies for them. For the first time in months, the roughly 2,000–2,500 survivors were given normal medical care, slept in beds. However, many of the people who recalled the events noted that, as was the case among other Holocaust survivors, the famished liberated prisoners often overate, meaning that they ate the high-caloric foods immediately and as quickly as possible, and this often led to serious medical complications and even death. Sources reveal little about the reactions of the local Germans. The Hungarian memoirs mostly note their alleged insensitivity. Their reactions may have been influenced by the fact that the American forces were compelling them to provide accommodation for the liberated prisoners and that the arrival of the Allied forces also meant the inevitable slaughter of their animals and the utilization of their workforce. According to Ingeborg Moritz, a local German woman with whom historian Heléna Huhák and I did an interview (to my knowledge, this is the only source on the events from the perspective of a local resident), her family was shaken by the sight of the survivors and helped them by providing milk, food, and beds, for which the liberated inmates were very grateful.11

Over the course of the next few days, the Americans gathered the former prisoners together and transported them with buses and carts to a DP camp established for Jewish survivors in spring 1945 near an adjacent settlement about ten kilometers away, near Hillersleben. The camp was one of the more than one hundred DP camps for Jews, which were in operation for shorter and longer periods of time between 1945 and 1957. The military (and later the administrative) authorities in the zones of the victorious powers uses these camps as places to house liberated prisoners who had survived the holocaust. Hillersleben was one of the at least two dozen DP camps where Hungarian Holocaust survivors waited for their fates to change for the better.12 While the civilian and POW residents of the postwar non-Jewish DP camps for the most part were forced to repatriate, in the case of the Jewish DPs, there was no consistent policy on this question. In the summer of 1945, tens of thousands of liberated Jews were gathered in such camps in zones of Germany, mostly young adult males under the control of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.13

One could refer to Hillersleben as a transit camp if one were to focus on the interim period before repatriation, but one could also consider it a relocation camp, as Hillersleben was where the allied forces placed individuals who had been liberated in each region (mostly from concentration camps) or gathered from the area. The term “relocation camp” indicates the temporary nature of this moment between the two longer periods. (It indicates that this was an interim period of collection and distribution between captivity and freedom, which was a phase in the larger process which was already familiar to some of the Hungarian survivors in Hillersleben.) Last but not least, one could also refer to Hillersleben as a refugee camp, as its denizens were refugees in the eyes of the military leadership and the local inhabitants. Most of the time, the survivors’ narratives simply describe their temporary habitation as a camp or sanatorium, suggesting that the survivors’ primary concern and, later, their strongest memory was recovery and healing.

The Hillersleben DP camp was organized by the American military in April 1945. The camp lay on the confines of the British, American, and Soviet occupation zones, and a peculiar circumstance arose when, in the spring and summer of 1945, the leadership of the camp switched twice within a short period of time. At first, the camp was under the leadership of the Americans who liberated the area. The British then assumed this role in June, and the Soviets took over in early July.

Originally, Hillersleben served as a flight station for the German Luftwaffe (since 1937) and as an experimental site for armored vehicles. Accordingly, the complex consisted of two parts: a barrack and the officers’ quarters and the related outbuildings (hospital, kitchen, etc.). It was a lowland camp surrounded by trees and wire fencing and separated from the village only by the ploughlands. There were both functional buildings (the kitchen, the hospital, the commander’s premises, a theatre, a cinema etc.) and spaces (a graveyard, a soccer field, and a pool) in the camp. The denizens of the displaced persons camp were placed in the fully equipped apartments which had been use by the officers (the so-called Beamterviertel, or officers’ quarter), which, in the absence of reliable data, we can only hypothesize were located in the 20 yellow-painted, single-floor residential blocks. The actual camp commandership has ordered that a private military guard be posted to each house in the initial period (until June).

The Spatial Perceptions of a Survivor

I attempt to offer insights into the experiences of the people who were temporarily accommodated in Hillersleben by using one survivor’s diary and, more specifically, examining the author’s perceptions of space. The diary of György Bognár is one of the most precious sources on the Hillersleben Hungarian group’s history. The manuscript can be found in the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center’s Repository.14 The surviving sources reveal little about Bognár himself. We know that he was born in Budapest in 1928 to a middle-class Jewish family and he lived in the eight district of the capital with his parents. He was a secondary school student in 1944 when he was taken from his home, made to wear a star of David to identify him as a Jew, and forced to clean rubble. He ended up on Teleki Square, from where he was deported to Bergen-Belsen in December 1944.15 He struggled through the phases of camp life alone in the Hungarian camp. He began writing his diary when he was deported, and he wrote entries more or less continuously, sometimes in booklets and sometimes using sheets of paper he had found. Important events occurred of which there is no mention in his entries, suggesting that he was not always able to make entries, and he wrote about many events a few days or in some cases a few weeks after they had taken place, including the evacuation and the treatment he was given in the camp hospital.

Unconventionally, in my analysis of Bognár’s diary, I do not offer a “close reading.” In other words, I do not provide a careful, focused discussion of specific passages from the text, as I would not be able to do so within the framework of this relatively short article.16 Instead, I provide an “integrated historical intuitive analysis” of the section of the text between the middle of April and the end of July 1945 in accordance with the sectioning by Éva Kovács, and not a qualitative analysis.17 I am convinced that, in part because of the dearth of diaries on which we can draw, this kind of analysis of ego-documents best furthers an understanding of the life in this camp and this moment of “transitory existence” at the end of the war.

In this case, I’m mostly confining myself to only one aspect of Bognár’s diary. I analyze his space-related approach, through which I can reconstruct the mental map which took form in Bognár mind. In other words, I seek to discover how he perceived and visualized the environment in which he was living. Bognár’s drawn maps can be analyzed to give insights into the underlying mental maps that have shaped them. Historians have taken up mental/cognitive maps as theoretical constructs over the course of the last 30 years in their discussion of mental images of physical spaces.18 In regards to the Holocaust, after the incursion of “spatial turn” into Holocaust Studies,19 the innovative works20 of British historian Tim Cole could be considered groundbreaking in this field. Building partly on environmental psychology works, Cole associated the historical examination of the micro- and macro-environments with the most diverse levels of empirical and emotional experience. I confine myself only to some typical representations of space in my discussion. Furthermore, in regards to the text, I do not address issues such as identity,21 the consumption of food, communication, or the importance of travel and homesickness within the history of perception. Where possible, I have compared Bognár’s diary entries with the notes and photographs I took in the area of the Hillersleben camp in April 2016 during my visit to the site.22

“Hillersleben, the City of Liberated Jews”

Bognár experienced the evacuation as a trauma, since compared to the compound, he was the denizen of a Sonderlager, which means the circumstances in which he lived in Bergen-Belsen were exceptional. The prisoners received better provisions and they did not have to work. The diary entries offer a portrait of a weary, frustrated, angry teenage boy who didn’t let anyone near him during the journey on the train. The negative overtones in the entries did not change with the liberation at Farsleben. The entries give an image of terrible hassle and chaos, showing the uncertainty of the general state of war and also the doubts and the duality of fear and hope which troubled Bognár at the same time. For a long time, he seems to have feared the possible return of the Germans, worrying that they might find the broken, empty wagons. Later, like the others, he managed to beg for food in Zielitz and in Farsleben. “And then,” he writes, “the nice Sonderlager-life was over.”23 This entry, dated April 13, 1945, clearly indicates that Bognár did not experience the train trip or even his first “free” day after the train trip as freedom, but he found it much more comparable to the circumstances in which he had lived in Bergen-Belsen.24 His rather bitter entries from the middle of April confirm that even on the second day of the liberation, “he was still being accommodated in the train car, which otherwise was empty.

Bognár was one of the former prisoners who “overate” during the first days, and he arrived in Hillersleben with stomach pains25 His situation was worsened by the fact that most of his companions had already been given accommodations in the buildings by the time he had arrived. Over the course of the next few weeks, he changed his dwelling place five times within the camp,26 which meant that moving remained a constant experience for him. In the first days, he complained that he had to live in a “barrack,” i.e. a dwelling established temporarily among the stone buildings for those who were taken to Hillersleben later and couldn’t get be given lodging in the stone buildings. The crowded wooden barrack, in which he did not have his own room, reminded Bognár of the Bergen-Belsen barracks, and he “constantly strove to get an apartment.”27 He also wanted to move out of the barracks because in the “technical school” (the former military training school), he was accommodated with some people who stole from him on the first day and even took his gramophone.28

At the end of April, with the help of the American camp commandership, he managed to get into an apartment in one of the stones buildings together with two other people, Miklós Frommer (Miki) from Makó, who was about the same age as Bognár, and Iván Pál Medgyesi, who was from Budapest.29 This was not his final destination, however, because over the course of the next weeks, like the other camp dwellers, he was moved again. This situation was a result of the general lack of organization, as displaced persons from different countries were constantly arriving in bigger and smaller groups from the former concentration camps, and they had to be given accommodations and then grouped according to nationality and, when possible, family. According to Bognár’s diary, in the early days, it seemed as if the camp were being pillaged, as the people who were arriving were searching for available apartments, and if someone managed to move into a certain dwelling first, he or she acquired a claim to that dwelling. Bognár himself must have been slow to catch on, as by the time he realized what was going on, all the buildings he visited already had denizens.30 In the end, the American camp commandership provided accommodations for Bognár with two other Hungarian boys in another small room, which already had a bathroom. Bognár notes in his diary that “this is fair enough for me.”31 They were given lodgings in a domicile in which an Orthodox Jewish family had already been given housing, but they lived in the other room. This did not bring an end to the process of moving, however. An American soldier came on April 28 and told them that they had to empty the building by 6 PM because Soviet soldiers were coming from Magdeburg and would be given accommodations in their lodgings. 8 to 10 similar buildings shared the same fate. The dwellers were forced into the street, and they were permitted to take refuge in the attic of the house on the other side of the way. The three of them were allowed to remain in their dwelling places for that night. “We are the wandering Jews,” Bognár wrote. The next day, an American soldier came for them. They were shown the buildings in which there were still available lodgings, and in the end, all three of them were moved into a four-room apartment, where nine Spanish Jews had already been housed, including two families.32 The “Spaniards” moved out on May 6, and they left Hillersleben, so Bognár and the other two boys were able to move out of the kitchen and into the room.33

The diary entries offer a vivid image of the surroundings. The first apartment in Hillersleben is described as spacious compared to the number of denizens, with “big rooms.” However, when I visited the site, I didn’t find any apartments in the block in question which could have had spacious rooms. Rather, they had smaller rooms of only a few square meters. Presumably, Bognár was given a misleading impression on the first day when he saw the apartment with many rooms, despite the fact that he and his companions were given lodgings in an untidy kitchen equipped with a stove and cabinet. A bunkbed was put in the room.34 Bognár may well have been troubled both by the inconvenience of having to move and by the crowdedness of the dwelling, not to mention the fact that he had difficulty communicating with the people with whom he shared the spaces, though he did not write about this in a negative tone in his diary entries. After a while, he resigned himself to the necessity of sharing the spaces with others. Indeed, he actually took a liking to them, so much so that, that in the end, they didn’t want to be separated. When he moved into his final dwelling place in the camp at Stalin Platz 1 on June 18, he did not do so alone. Rather, Miklós and Pál made the move too. By this time, hundreds of former concentration camp prisoners had left Hillersleben, but the three boys were still only given a room that was 20 square meters, a fact which suggests that the camp was still crowded. The room had beds and furniture which was in decent conditions, however. Once the boys managed to tidy up the room and make it a little bit cozy, Bognár became fond of this station of his time in Hillersleben. Of course, another person had already been given lodging in the other room of the two-room apartment.35 According to Bognár’s diary entries, the first thing which he added to his mental map was the space itself, i.e. the room and the kitchen, and the views from this space. Then came the whole apartment, the building, and then gradually the whole camp. They tried to make the rooms livable and cozy, and they tried to repair the beds as soon as possible. They even put a flower on the table: “First of all, I obtained paper, a fountain pen, and a small notebook. This is important for posterity.”36 In his entries, Bognár describes his dwelling places (the room, later the two-room and the four-room apartments, including the corridor and attic) several times and in detail. One has the impression that, after his experiences in the crowded barrack, the crowded train, and the upheavals of the first few days in Hillersleben, he was beginning to have a different experience of space. The joy Bognár may well have felt seems to have prompted him to note the condition of the main room and of his own room again and again, and in remarkable detail. Almost every diary entry includes mention of the radio, which was part of the interior of the apartment, and of his habit of listening to the radio.

In addition to the furnishings, Bognár also mentions the external space accessible from the room several times. “By the way,” he writes in an entry dated April 27, “our room opens onto the square, there is a tree in front of it. The sun shines in beautifully in the morning and one hears the sound of spring birdsong.”37 After a while, his room, the clean air, the sight of the green trees, and the warmth even raised his spirits. The more distant square, the buildings, and the public spaces also appeared in his entries soon, and Bognár slowly came to know the whole camp. He expressed his thoughts about the whole of the camp:


It is a small town. As we enter the gates—as there are some gates—we see yellow buildings with several stories. Soon, we see the well-tended square. American motorcycles rush over the surfaced road. People are queueing in front of the canteen for lunch. Milk is being distributed at the hospital right now, the milk and the bread are handed out through the window. Alterkaserne 86, where the American hospital is now, has been completely emptied. New equipment was added, through the window we can see the kitchen, where excellent meals are cooked. The Hungarian delegation’s office is in the canteen, it is a very nice, classy room with wooden paneling. And the writing desks [in the office – A. Sz.] are arrangedlike in Pest. The streets are clean, German workers are going out and cleaning every day. Tinned food is now being unloaded from a car near the canteen and the EO [Economic Office – A. Sz.], American cars are bringing food without pause. If we go through the crossing gates, we get to the train station, the technical school, and even the other factories and experimental buildings are found here. Only Americans are here now. The villas are the other way. This is where the liberated Jews live. One-story buildings equipped with the most modern conveniences. They are identical, and they look pretty nice, with a partly gray and partly brown design. To get there, we can go on the motor-road, and then we see container gardens on the one side and a bigger park on the other side. A small footpath runs through it, which continues in Hermann Göring Strasse. The former street is Berkerstrasse. There is a small pond and a small creek in the park, which also has a waterfall. Small gardens are among the villas with flower gardens and container gardens. Everything is nice and green. Hitler Strasse is the first side street. Then comes Siegerplatz, a finely landscaped square. Usually everything is very nice, and one can clearly see that military officers lived here. One hears the sounds of happy footfalls on the street. Jewish women are showing off and flirting with the American soldiers. Others are taking home some lunch. Bicycles are passing us on the flat street. American soldiers are rushing with the fire engine. Everything is game and sports for them. This is an international city. You can hear the slow sounds of Hungarian, then swift Polish, Slovak, and the melodic French one after another, and only the soldiers speak English. I haven’t been to the neighborhood yet. I could see the village from our previous apartment, I could see through the train bridge. There are windmills next to the high road. This is typical of this region. The American reinforcements are constantly marching along the high road. Thousands of cars every day. We can even see trains passing by. It’s possible to travel now. There’s great silence and tranquility. The birds are tweeting in the morning, it’s like a vacation spot, and we are still kept from home. The Dutch men already got their train tickets to return home. I wish we could be there as well.38


Bognár describes the camp as a real multi-national, bustling little town (this image conforms to the spatial experiences of the other Hungarians in the camp)39, though he may have exaggerated its size. The visit I made to the site in 2016 supports the content of Bognár’s diary: what he saw at the time, the partly demolished and ruinous former barracks and DP camp, must have been grandiose and city-like. His diary entries offer an image of a jumble of real squares, streets, and communal and private buildings, some of which had been partly demolished or had partly collapsed and some of which were in an untended condition. This image corresponds with the three undated maps Bognár drew (as he admitted in his diary) during his tranquil hours in his room.40

Drawing on the scholarship of Andrea Dúll, Heléna Huhák offers the following observation concerning the complex process of creating a mental map: “During the mental mapping of an environment […], its metric information, the directions, distances, axes, scales etc. might be distorted, and size alteration, position dislocation etc. might occur typically in accordance with emotional significance.”41 In his diary Bognár offers no explanation of why he drew the maps. He may have drawn them after he had settled into the camp. According to his diary, he began working on them on May 6.42 He did not simply draw the intersections, boundaries, and the most significant sites of the camp. Rather, he drew the geographical layout of the streets with the utmost accuracy and with a fine sense of proportion. This suggests that he had been to the places several times and he knew them well, and he didn’t simply map the path from his lodgings to the canteen and the hospital.43 The precision and detail of Bognár’s maps are, perhaps, not surprising. As Ann Sloan Devlin suggests in her discussion of cognitive mapmaking, residents of small towns can acquire remarkably detailed knowledge of the human geography of a town in a relatively short period of time.44 Bognár’s mappings of the environment in which he lived indicate the five qualities identified by Kevin Lynch as essential to the mental images in the minds of people who live in a given urban space: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.45 Bognár was so accurate that, during my visit to the site, I could easily orientate myself on the streets among the remaining buildings on the basis of his maps.

Some buildings which I was able to identify on the basis of the diary and the name of some of the public spaces deserve particular attention.46 The functions of the spaces written about in the diary and drawn on the maps have changed. Previously, they served national socialist military purposes; they were workplaces and partly dwellings for hundreds of soldiers, air force officers, pilots, SS-members, and officers.47 One of the important spaces was the “hospital.” which had a key role in the survival of György Bognár and other camp denizens and which Bognár referred to in his diary as an “outpatient clinic,” a term he had heard or read in German in the barracks.48 He realized early on that there was a waiting room and a treatment room in the center and that he had to stand in the queue for an incredibly long time. Initially, patients were treated by physicians recruited from the ranks of the survivors. Bognár had a devastatingly critical opinion of them. But when the Americans took over the management of the hospital, everything changed. Professional medical care was made available.49 Bognár was taken to the hospital due to high fever on May 10, 1945, and the physicians determined that he too was infected by the typhus epidemic which broke out at the time. The hospital was his new home until June 1. He didn’t write in his diary during his treatment and recovery. The first entries in which he mentions his experiences in the hospital were written in the first days of June. During his time in the hospital (when at times he suffered hallucinations), he does not seem to have thought about questions of space (or at least there is no mention of any such reflections in the diary entries he wrote about his time there), but he did reflect, after his period of convalescence had come to an end, on his more immediate environment. He makes mention in his entries of the allegedly dirty halls and small hospital rooms. In his retrospective entry in June, he wrote that, after a while, he “really wanted to get ‘home’.” This is the first reference in his diary to the modest apartments, rooms, and kitchens described above as “home.” His broader home (i.e. the camp) was increasingly empty. He describes the organized departures of prisoners of different national backgrounds (Czech, Slovak, Greek, French, Spanish) in groups or on their own more and more often beginning on June 2.

Toponyms have an important role in Bognár’s mental map, although as cognitive linguists have suggested, this is not necessarily so in all cases. The cognitive map and the memorization of toponyms arise from the same cerebration, but the names of the places are not necessarily required for the identification of the places.50 Bognár uses geographical names in the first entries in his diary. It is strange that this was also true in the period he spent in the DP camp, initially, at least, but when drawing the maps, Bognár used the National Socialist names of the public spaces. Reading about streets named after Hitler or Hermann Göring51 might be grotesque (some of the street signs were still visible in 2016), but navigating in the crowded space may have been much more important for Bognár, and the names that were in use were of great assistance in this. Bognár himself also lived on Sieger Platz 8, and from here, he moved to Sieger Platz 2 on April 19.52 The changes in the history of the camp were reflected in the names as well. The use of National Socialist street names started to fade by June, which is when we first come across mentions of Roosevelt Strasse.53 The change to Soviet control of the camp in early August brought changes in the names of the “small town’s” public spaces as well. The new names also had symbolic meanings. Bognár began to refer to what had been known as Hitler Platz as Stalin Platz at this time in the diary. We observe a similar process in the case of the aforementioned “center for ambulatory care ” as well. Bognár used the term “ambulancia” in German origin, and in doing so, he seems deliberately not to be using the term Belsen hospital, which had had referred to in earlier entries as the “revier.”54 It is also noticeable that he begins to use the term “villa” to refer to what had been the Wehrmacht barracks. The term was probably used by the Americans, but it is also possible that it was used by other prisoners. He never writes about a camp, only about buildings. However, the buildings in the photographs which I took during my site visit are not villas, but simple two-story and three-story residential buildings. It is easy to imagine that after the crowdedness of Bergen-Belsen and the trains, Bognár actually saw his dwelling as nicer than it really was. The case of the word “canteen,” or “Kantin,” is another clear example of an instance when Bognár used German terms. This word was written on the wall of the former barracks, which explains why it came to be used among the displaced persons in the camp.

Other places are also mentioned, such as the theater, which Bognár mostly refers to with the term “casino,” which also matches the Nazi usage. It was an important venue in National Socialist times as well, since this space, which is an odd one out among the buildings used by the military officers, could function as an auditorium. Hitler and Goebbels went to this building in 1942.55 Bognár mentions in one of his entries from June that the camp staff and the displaced persons organized a so-called “mixed party” here. He grasped the importance of the casino: “The asphalt streets of Hillersleben are slowly being filled at around 6 o’clock, and the people are marching towards the Casino in bigger and smaller groups to have fun, laugh, and forget.”

Later entries in the diary from the end of June contain references to the areas set aside for sports, including the place where ping pong tables were located and a space used as sports field, where soccer games were played. The diary offers no details concerning the space where the ping pong tables allegedly were located, and even after having consulted the other potentially relevant sources, I was unable to locate this space during my visit to the site. In contrast, the soccer field is easy to identify on one of Bognár’s maps. A memorable match was played here on July 9 between the Italian and Hungarian ex-prisoners, who, unlike the Czech, Yugoslavian, German, and French ex-prisoners, were still present in huge numbers.56 Bognár was a witness to the match, and his diary entries suggest that he cheered for the Hungarians who were playing, together with another 1,000 displaced Jewish camp dwellers. He also notes that most of the fans came to the venue from Roosevelt Strasse, which, on the basis of the map drawn weeks before, suggests that the audience consisted of camp dwellers, not the Soviet military commandership or the German villagers. After the overwhelming Italian victory, “the audience marched along Churchill and Eisenhower Strasse in compact order, almost endlessly—in accordance with the local dimensions, of course—to participate in the dance tonight where the very best of Hillersleben [camp] appeared.”57

In Bognár’s text, space-related experiences are often connected to concrete emotions. Like in the case of his earlier cited entry from April 28, when he mentioned the sounds of birdsong in his room, he noted that the mood “resembles a vacation.” Many texts have been written about Bognár’s experiences of space and his experiences of cooperation with his roommates during the long days and weeks spent organizing, idling, and healing. For example, they had to agree on who would walk the one kilometer to the “canteen” to get lunch at a given time, as this was considered work, or who would do the washing up and when.58

If we read the diary from the perspective of experiences and perceptions of space, the perspective of the entries changes with the passage of time. Initially, Bognár was writing carefully, often about the negative aspects of life in the camp, irrespective of the fact that he gradually discovered every corner of his new dwelling place. However, from the end of May and especially in and after June, when he presumably had grown accustomed to the circumstances and had finished moving and had recovered from his treatment in the hospital, he seems to have accepted the conditions in Hillersleben. Partly due to the summer heat, partly due to his health, and also because the camp became a psychological inland, he spent a lot of time outside, and even his descriptions of healing and eating, which in earlier entries had been lengthy, are comparatively short. He seems to be thinking more and more about the past, and he begins to wonder how he will get home and what will be waiting for him at home, and his perceptions of space begin to change. With the passage of time, the camp increasingly becomes a space of relaxation and cogitation, thus losing its earlier significance. “Life continues in Hillersleben” he writes on June 8.59 He got used to his situation, his “small town” life. There are no references to the world beyond the camp fence on the map drawn in early May. However, once the typhus outbreak had passed, the camp dwellers were free to move about. In early June, Bognár began going to the village regularly. He has also visited the buildings of the adjacent former Wehrmacht barracks.60

Instead of Conclusions: The Continuity of Absence

The narrative descriptions of space in György Bognár’s diary and the maps he drew of the camp in which he was lodged offer a solid foundation on the basis of which we can construct an image of the whole DP camp. Bognár’s expressive entries, which are rich with data and are based on observations he made over the course of months, suggest a detailed cognitive map of the spaces, and as far as the accuracy of this cognitive map is concerned, my visit to the cite suggests that it was precise and reliable. The actual physical maps which he drew and his narrative maps (his diary entries) provide an important source for the study of this DP camp and a source on which studies of similar camps can also draw. In this article, I have drawn primarily on this source in my discussion of the conditions in the Hillersleben camp in 1945 (or at least one person’s perceptions of these conditions). This discussion, used alongside other ego-documents and archival sources, could provide a good basis for a more comprehensive study of the circumstances of Hungarian Jewish groups in DP camps.

Liberated prisoners arrived in Hillersleben continuously over the course of the summer, and as time passed, more and more people left to return home or to continue their journeys as survivors of the war and Holocaust.61 Bognár’s last diary entry was written on July 20, the day when he left the camp.62 By the end of August 1945, the camp was empty, and the short-lived DP camp was closed. As part of the history of the war and the Holocaust, Hillersleben was largely forgotten for decades, as were the histories of many displaced persons. The area of the former Wehrmacht barracks became a military training ground for the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s and people were therefore not allowed to visit it. After German reunification in 1990, it was occupied by the allied German army (Bundeswehr). The Bundeswehr sold the area, together with the decaying and ruined buildings, to a Hamburg-based private firm in the 1990s, and this firm established a field of solar panels in the area. In the spring of 2016, half of the former camp’s buildings were still standing, with equipment which had been used by the GDR military therein. The last buildings were demolished in October 2018.

The small Jewish cemetery in the area of the camp and its commemorative plaque and the commemorative plaque in the Farsleben town cemetery’ commemorate the Jewish dead and the Jewish survivors of the DP camp. Local remembrance of the Hillersleben camp has been practically marginalized. Were there any call for remembrance or commemoration, any attempt would hindered by the fact that much of the site has been destroyed. The area can never become a cultural heritage space, as the connection between the community and the space has been severed.63 However, spaces are still opening up for different forms of historical recollection. For this, however, it would be necessary to explore the history of the camp, which has survived several periods (including discussion of the history of the Hungarian displaced persons). Furthermore, one would also need to see more research on the fates of postwar displaced persons in regards to the Holocaust and the issue of the refugees.


Primary sources

Arolsen Archives. International Center on Nazi Persecution Reference Code: 849000. List of former deportees in camp Hillersleben, 30.7.1945. (World Jewish Congress, London) Reference Code: 261000. List of liberated Jews in Hillersleben, 3.8.1945 (World Jewish Congress, New York)

3. 1. 1. 3. Reference Code: 8805610. Hungarian and Yugoslavian Jews at Hillersleben, 8.8.1945. (AJDC, Paris)

Emlékezések. A koncentrációs táborok felszabadulásának ötvenedik évfordulójára [Memories. In memory of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps], edited by Ágnes Bakó, Éva Szabó, and Gábor Verő. Budapest: Magyar Auschwitz Alapítvány–Holocaust Dokumentációs Központ, 1995.

Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen [Bergen-Belsen Memorial]

Farsleben name list database.

George S. Interview, 1955. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.

Ingeborg Moritz. Interview by Heléna Huhák and András Szécsényi. April 12, 2016, Farsleben, Germany. (In the possession of the interviewers)

Katalin S. Interview, 51127. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.

Holokauszt Emlékközpont [Holocaust Memorial Center]

2011.25.1. The diary and hand-drawn maps of György Bognár.

Weiczner, Jenő. “Ez most a sorsod kiüldözött zsidó.” Napló, 1944–1945 [“This is your fate now, exiled Jew.” Diary, 1944–1945]. Budapest: Wesley, [2014].


Secondary literature

Altman, Irwin. The environment and social behavior: Privacy, personal space, territory, crowding. Monterey: Brooks-Cole, 1975.

Billib, Stephanie. “ ‘Infolge eines glücklichen Zufalls ...’ Das Ungarnlager in Bergen-Belsen von Dezember 1944 bis April 1945.” In Bergen-Belsen. Neue Forschungen, edited by Habbo Knoch, and Thomas Rahe, 92–108. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2014.

Blatman, Daniel. The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Bucholz, Marlis, ed. Bergen-Belsen. Kriegsgefangenenlager 1940–1945, Konzentrationslager 1943–1945, Displaced Persons Camp 1945–1950. Katalog der Dauerausstellung. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2009.

Cole, Tim. Traces of the Holocaust: Journeying in and out of the Ghettos. London–New York: Continuum, 2011.

Devlin, Ann Sloan. “The ‘Small Town’ Cognitive Map: Adjusting to a New Environment.” In Environmental knowing: Theories, Research, and Methods, edited by Gary T. Moore, Reginald G. Golledge, 58–66. Stroudsburg: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1976.

Fogu, Claudio. “A ‘Spatial Turn’ in Holocaust Studies?” In Probing the Ethics of Holocaust Culture, edited by Claudio Fogu, Wulf Kansteinr, and Todd Presner, 21839. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Giordano, Alberto, Anne Kelly Knowles, and Tim Cole. “Geographies of the Holocaust.” In Geographies of the Holocaust, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, 1–17. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Götz, Norbert, and Janne Holmén. “Introduction to the theme issue: Mental Maps: geographical and historical Perspectives.” Journal of Cultural Geography 35, no. 2 (2018): 15761. doi:10.1080/08873631.2018.1426953.

Grossmann, Atina. Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close encounters in occupied Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Holian, Anna. Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2011.

Hördler, Stefan. Ordnung und Inferno: Das KZ-System im letzten Kriegsjahr. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013.

Huhák, Heléna. “Szabadok voltunk, csak éppen nem tudtunk mit kezdeni a szabad­sá­gunk­kal: Átmeneti gyűjtőtábor Hillerslebenben és Alpenjägerben” [We were free, but we couldn’t do anything about our freedom: DP-camp in Hillersleben and Alpenjägger]. ArchivNet 15, no. 1 (2015). Accessed on August 28, 2018. https://bit.ly/2UCxeGa.

Huhák, Heléna. “Bergen-Belsen a deportált magyar zsidók élettörténeteiben: A túlélők elbeszéléseinek helyközpontú vizsgálata” [Bergen-Belsen in the life story of the deported Hungarian Jewish people: The space-oriented examination of the stories by the survivors]. In Tanulmányok a holokausztról [Studies on the Holocaust], vol. 9, edited by Randolph L. Braham, 243–95. Budapest: Múlt és Jövő, 2018.

Kolb, Eberhard. Bergen-Belsen, 1943–1945. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985.

Kovács, Éva. “ ‘Post-testimony’: A tanúságtétel helye a soá történeti elbeszélésében.” socio.hu 7, no. 3 (2018): 107–19. Accessed on November 2, 2018. https://bit.ly/2IXveFZ.

Königseder, Angelika, Juliane Wetzel. Waiting for Hope: Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War II Germany. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Kubetzky, Thomas. “Fahrten ins Ungewisse: Räumungstransporte aus dem Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen.” In Bergen-Belsen. Neue Forschungen. Habbo Knoch, Thomas Rahe, 150–76. Göttingen. Wallstein, 2014.

Lavsky, Hagit. New Beginnings: Holocaust Survivors in Bergen-Belsen and the British Zone. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of a City. Cambridge (Massachusetts), London: The M. I. T. Press, 1960.

Mankowitz, Zeev. Life Between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Myers Feinstein, Margarete. Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945–1957. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Porter, Anna. Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of Rezső Kasztner: Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd, 2007.

Rahe, Thomas. “Das Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen.” In Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 8, edited by Wolfgang Benz, and Barbara Distel, 187220. München: 2008.

Reilly, Jo, David Cesarani, Tony Kushner, Colin Richmond. “Approaching Belsen: An Introduction.” In Belsen in History and Memory, edited by Jo Reilly, David Cesarani, Tony Kushner, and Colin Richmond, 333. London–Portland: Frank Cass, 1997.

Reszegi, Katalin. “A mentális térkép és a helynevek” [The mental map and toponyms]. In Mentális folyamatok a nyelvi feldolgozásban [Mental processes in linguistic articulation], edited by Judit Navracsis, and Dániel Szabó, 95–100. Debrecen: Tinta, 2012.

Rozell, Matthew M. A Train near Magdeburg: A Teacher’s Journey into the Holocaust and the Reuniting of the Survivors and Liberators, 70 years on. Hartford–New York: Woodchuck Hollow Press, 2016.

The Kasztner Report: The Report of the Jewish Rescue Commitee, 1942–1945 by Rezső Kasztner, edited by László Karsai, and Judit Molnár. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2013.

Torre, Angelo. “The ‘Spatial Turn’ in History? Landscapes, Visions, Resources.” Annales 63, no. 5 (2008): 1127–41.

Uzzell, David. “Where is the Discipline in Heritage Studies? A View from Environmental Psychology.” In Heritage studies: Methods and Approaches, edited by Marie Louise Stig Sørensen, and John Carman, 328–29. London, New York: Routledge, 2009.

We are Here: New Approaches to the Study of Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany, edited by Michael Berkowitz, and Patt Avinoar. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.

Wilhelm, Gábor. “Kognitív térképek és városreprezentáció” [Cognitive maps and representation of the city]. In Terek és szövegek: Újabb perspektívák a városkutatásban [Places and texts. New perspectives in the research on cities], edited by Tímea N. Kovács, Gábor Böhm, and Tibor Mester 29–46. Budapest: Kijárat, 2005.

1* The paper enjoyed the support of the MTA Bolyai János Research Fellowship (2017–2019) and the EHRI. Fellowship (2017).

British-Canadian troops who liberated the camp referred to it simply as Belsen. This term was then used by the media and in the historiography to refer to the camp, but for the sake of precision, I refer to it as Bergen-Belsen. An exception to my contention concerning the Hungarian secondary literature is the literature produced regarding the so-called Kasztner group. Porter, Kasztner’s Train and Karsai and Molnár, The Kasztner Report, 17–49.

2 Concerning the reasons in detail, see: Reilly et al., Approaching Belsen, 1214.

3 Rahe, Das Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen, 187220.

4 For the two classic writings concerning the evacuation of Bergen-Belsen, see: Blatman, The Death Marches and Hördler, Ordnung und Inferno.

5 Concerning the evacuation of the camp primarily building on survivor narratives, see: Kubetzky, Fahrten ins Ungewisse, 150–76.

6 For accurate details and dates (in daily breakdown) of the three evacuation routes on the map, see: Bucholz, Bergen-Belsen. Kriegsgefangenenlager 1940–1945, 188.

7 The fact that the term “Ungarnlager” itself was unknown in the Hungarian Holocaust literature until very recently indicates the absence of historical memory. Weiczner, “Ez most a sorsod kiüldözött zsidó,” 267. Today, a study an overview of the Hungarian camp is available: Billib, “Infolge eines glücklichen Zufalls...,” 92–108.

8 Three of them were died during the evacuation. Thank you for the informations to Bernd Horstmann (Bergen-Belsen Memorial).

9 Rozell, Magdeburg.

10 The photograph taken during the event is one of the best-known photographs about the tragedy of the Shoah up to this day. Rozell, Magdeburg, 1015.

11 Interview with Ingeborg Moritz, 2016.

12 The most significant books on Jewish DP camp history: Berkowitz and Patt, We are Here; Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies; Holian, Between National Socialsm and Soviet Communism; Königseder and Wetzel, Waiting for Hope; Lavsky, New Beginnings; Mankowitz, Life Between Memory; Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945–1957.

13 Lavsky, New Beginnings, 3133.

14 The diary of György Bognár. Holocaust Memorial Center, Repository. 2011. 15.1–2. (Hereinafter I will refer to it as “Diary,” indicating the date of entry and the page number from the typewritten script.) Excerpts from Bognár’s diary were published in a sourcebook in 1995, but this publication didn’t cover the months he spent in Hillersleben.

15 Bakó et al., Emlékezések, 432.

16 The parts about the period in Hillersleben come to more than 150 typewritten pages.

17 Kovács, “Post-testimony.”

18 Götz and Holmén, “Introduction,” 158.

19 Fogu, “ ‘A Spatial Turn’,” 21839.

20 See Cole, Traces of the Holocaust, and Giordano et al., “Geographies of the Holocaust,” 1–17.

21 Although microenvironments, especially the “home,” play the most important role in identity formation. Altman, The Environment and Social Behavior.

22 I have made a site visit to the area of the former camp using special permit in April 2016 together with Heléna Huhák. I would like to thank Daniel and Klaus-Peter Keweloh, amateur researchers of the local history of Hillersleben, for their help and advice during the visit and since. We prepared photo documentation of the buildings, and to the extent possible, we identified the buildings recognizable from the diary and other ego-documents.

23 Diary, 13 April 1945, 124.

24 Diary, 134. posterior entry on April 27, 1945.

25 Diary, 14 April 1945, 127.

26 For its analysis, see: Huhák, “Szabadok voltunk.”

27 Diary, April 27, 1945, 141.

28 Diary, April 26, 1945, 136.

29 They both were born in 1929. Farsleben name list database. Archives, Bergen-Belsen.Memorial)

30 Diary, April 27, 1945, 149–50.

31 Diary, April 26, 1945, 137.

32 Diary, April 28–29, 1945, 155–57.

33 Diary, May 7, 1945, 171.

34 Diary, April 30, 1945, 160.

35 Diary, June 19, 1945, 221.

36 Diary, April 26, 1945, 148.

37 Diary, April 27, 1945, 152.

38 Diary, April 27, 1945, 150–52.

39 For example: George S, interview, 1955; Katalin S., interview, 51127.

40 Their location: Holocaust Memorial Center, Repository, 2011. 25.1.

41 Huhák, “Bergen-Belsen a deportált magyar zsidók élettörténeteiben.”

42 Diary, May 6, 1945, 191–92.

43 Beginning with his entry on June 5, Bognár more and more frequently referred to the fact that he had walked to specific locations in the camp which previously had seemed faraway to him or that he went sunbathing to some grass-covered areas of the camp.

44 Devlin, “The ‘Small Town’ Cognitive Map,” 58–66.

45 Lynch, The Image of a City. Nowadays, cognitive maps are interpreted as the social relationships of the spaces and the citizens. Wilhelm, “Kognitív térképek,” 35.

46 Accordingly, Bognár’s entries focus on the natural space as well. Since the “spatial turn,” we have known that the natural landscape is not a stand-alone space. It can be interpreted as the unity of natural and social spaces. Torre, “The ‘Spatial Turn’ in History,” 1127–41.

47 Several brochures and postcards which were spread for propaganda purposes beginning in the late 1930s confirm this. Most of the former buildings are now in a ruinous condition or have been destroyed.

48 Diary, April 27, 1945, 145.

49 Diary, April 27, 1945, 147–48.

50 Reszegi, “A mentális térkép és a helynevek,” 95–100.

51 There was also a “value-neutral” public space name as well, e.g. Barbara Strasse. In other cases, such as the words indicating certain occupations, the German terms were used in the diary simply as borrowings for no ideological reasons. (E.G. using the word “Schwester” instead of nurse.)

52 Diary, April 28, 1945, 153.

53 Bognár wrote the American president’s name incorrectly in the entries. He spelled it “Roosewelt.” During my visit to the site, I saw no trace of this sign, unlike the National Socialist signs. This may explain why the Nazi public space names were used for so long in the diary.

54 This is the common name of the infirmary of the healthcare part of the camp system maintained for the prisoners. The same term was used for the military infirmaries as well.

55 The surviving photographs testify to this. Today, the images are in the possession of the Keweloh family in Hillersleben.

56 Approximately 1,343–1,458 Hungarian survivors remained until the early August in the camp. Arolsen Archives Reference Code: 849000. List of former deportees in camp Hillersleben, 30. 7.1945. (World Jewish Congress, London); Arolsen Archives, Reference Code: 261000. List of liberated Jews in Hillersleben, 3. 8. 1945 (World Jewish Congress, New York); Arolsen Archives 3. 1. 1. 3. Reference Code: 8805610. Hungarian and Yugoslavian Jews at Hillersleben, 8. 8. 1945. (AJDC, Paris)

57 Diary, July 9, 1945, 241–42. A Soviet-Hungarian soccer match was played in the same place on July 9. Idem, 247–48.

58 Diary, April 26, 1945, 142.

59 Diary, June 8, 1945, 197.

60 Diary, June 11, 1945, 210. This was the first entry about the “walks” Bognár took in the village and the contacts he made with people outside the camp.

61 The sources on which my following comments are based are private individuals living in Hillersleben (April 2016) and the website of the settlement (http://www.hillersleben.eu)

62 Like most of the Hungarian prisoners in Saxony, Bognár , and on July 30, 1945, he made it to Magdeburg, where he was entitled to ration cards on the basis of the displaced persons ID he was given by the Hillersleben camp management. He managed to take the Leipzig train with his mates, and he then took a cargo train which was going to Dresden, but the train under Soviet authority went to the town of Doberlug-Kirchhain, where he got to the local DP camp. From here, he finally managed to get to Hungary through Prague with the help of the Red Cross. Cf. for example DEGOB-protocol no. 2208. Bognár resettled in Budapest and started a family. He was later involved in the activity of Nácizmus Üldözötteinek Országos Egyesülete (National Association of Victims of Nazi Persecution). His date of death is unknown. Bakó et al., Emlékezések, 432.

63 Uzzell, “Where is the Discipline in Heritage Studies,” 328–29.


Budapest Butchers, the Jewish Question, and Holocaust Survivors

István Pál Ádám
Central European University IAS / A Selma Stern Zentrum, Claims Conference Saul Kagan Fellow in Advanced Shoah Studies 
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 3  (2020): 491-511 DOI: 10.38145/2020.3.491

This article focuses on a denazification procedure within the professional group of the Budapest butchers. Through the retelling of wartime anti-Jewish incidents and other conflicts, these processes reveal a complex picture of how a certain professional group tried to cope with the upheavals of the war and the attempts of outside interventions. In the framework of the anti-Jewish exclusionary atmosphere of the epoch, I investigate questions about professional competition, leadership, respectability, professionalization, and the marginalization of Jewish professionals. By answering these questions, I reconstruct a wartime internal dynamism within the butchers’ trade, where meat gradually became a scarcity, and therefore ousting Jewish colleagues was understood more and more as an urging necessity. In these circumstances, I am interested in the ways of solidarity and animosity showed by the Budapest butchers towards persecuted colleagues and towards Jews in general. By using a micro-historical method, I detail the professional problems of Budapest butchers, and I explain how the denazification check interestingly took over some functions of the “master’s exam,” after the Second World War

Keywords: Transitional justice, occupational groups and the Holocaust, denazification, respectability, microhistory of Holocaust, individual help during the Holocaust, food ration, Jews and Gentiles during the Holocaust

This paper explores the ways in which Jewish origins and political affiliation mattered during the Second World War in an urban setting if one happened to work as a butcher, or when meat was needed as foodstuff. Among Budapest butchers, as in most of the professional clusters in Hungary, Jewish and leftist colleagues found themselves marginalized starting from 1939. Butchers were not unique in this sense, yet this professional group may have been particularly important simply due to the scarcity of meat in the later phase of the war, which mixed this ideological side-lining with a bitter fight against professional competition.

Considering the bigger picture, the marginalization of Jewish professionals and political opponents was, of course, a phenomenon that could be observed in several Central European countries. Jews in Germany were segregated from the rest of the urban communities in which they lived years earlier than in Budapest. Nevertheless, just like in Hungary, in 1945, “the collapse of the Third Reich reversed social hierarchies, with former Nazis losing their privileges and their erstwhile victims having the power to decide on their fates.”1 In a similar vein, following the war in the Hungarian capital, in spring 1945, some of the previously marginalized butchers came back and staged an anti-Nazi purge in this occupational cluster.

A key tool in taking vengeance was the immediate post-war denazification process which was organized as part of a larger screening of Hungarian public life. This obligation followed from the truce agreement Hungary had signed with the victorious Allied powers at the end of the Second World War, and it aimed at a sort of spiritual and ethical turn in public life.2 Organized by the professional chambers and trade unions, beginning in the spring of 1945, a denazifying check took place which was based in no small part on the wartime behaviour of individuals working in specific trades and professions. The members of the justificatory committees included labour union officials, legal experts, and the delegates of the democratic political parties of the so-called Hungarian National Independence Front, a Soviet backed umbrella organization of the anti-Fascist political powers.3

On the following pages, I am going to analyse the documentation of the transitional justice procedures recorded by the justificatory committee of the Budapest Butchers’ and Slaughtermen’s Chamber, and I am going to complement my findings with discussion of the wartime primary sources. By analysing the minutes of the meetings of this justificatory committee and the declarations which were submitted, I am able to reconstruct microhistories of the Holocaust on the basis of immediate post-war sources. While doing this, I want to ask questions about (1) the non-Jewish individuals’ wartime choices, including whether or not they sought to benefit from the anti-Jewish regulations?; and (2) whether the butchers of Budapest had any chance to provide help for Jews?; also (3) in what ways and from when did one’s Jewish origin matter in an everyday trade such as meat selling and processing?; and, finally, (4) how did market control and internal group cohesion evolve during the Second World War among the Budapest butchers?

Persilschein, George Mosse, and the Budapest Butchers

Writing about the immediate German post-war situation, Konrad H. Jarausch describes the 1945 phenomenon of Persilschein, alluding to the papers issued by the few German Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, who were continuously nudged by German petitioners “to provide an affidavit, called Persilschein after a laundry detergent, that would prove their [the German petitioners’] innocence.”4 Files left behind by the justificatory committee of the Budapest Butchers’ and Slaughtermen’ Chamber provide proof that this piece of paper often featured in transitional justice processes in other countries as well, which not long before had belonged to the Axis alliance. Nevertheless, while in Germany possessing a Persilschein often put an end to any further investigation, in the Hungarian context, denazification was sometimes taken more seriously.5

The denazification related archival material of the Budapest butchers’ professional chamber contains various other types of documents. This makes it easier for the researcher to differentiate between people who actually provided help and those wrongdoers who only arranged similar supporting statements to avoid post-war retribution. Most typically, numerous butchers got into trouble after the war because they had been taking steps to deny their Jewish colleagues’ access to meat during the war. On 10 May, 1942, the deputy leader of the meat industry workers’ association delivered a speech at this organization’s assembly. Speaking about the problems faced by this professional group, he offered his opinion concerning the Jewish colleagues, whose effective exclusion from the pork- and veal market had brought the unwanted result of Jewish dominance in beef commerce.6 One representative of the slaughterhouse workers, Mr. Dancs, suggested ousting the Jews also from the beef market.

The issue was addressed in a short while, when still in 1942, a nine-member committee was set up at the cow slaughterhouse, the members of which monopolized the distribution of live animals arriving through their contact with MÁSZ, the state agency for selling and buying animals.7 Contemporaries saw the role of MÁSZ as making sure that Christianity as a cultural trait prevailed even at the slaughterhouses.8 Run by state officials, it tendentiously preferred members of extreme right organizations when it came to distributing the best-looking animals for slaughtering, which is why, for example, Árpád Horváth slaughter-man had joined the National Socialist party in the early 1940s.

Historian George L. Mosse reminds us that “we must understand the actions and commitments of people as they themselves saw them and not project ourselves back into history.”9 Mosse, who himself had to escape from the Nazis in 1933, suggests that on the one hand, “a historian in order to understand the past has to empathize with it, to get under its skin, as it were, to see the world through the eyes of its actors and its institutions,”10 while, on the other hand, he claims that “understanding does not mean withholding judgement […] but understanding must precede an informed and effective judgement.”11 Keeping this in mind, it is worth mentioning that although butcher Árpád Horváth had become a member of the National Socialist party only to get access to meat, he cancelled his membership once this party united with the Arrow Cross Party, a move after which he did not receive proper meat for a longer period of time. His case should be evaluated differently than those of his colleagues who remained Arrow Cross Party members even in autumn 1944 (some of whom will be mentioned later), when it was already evident that the party had become a driving force behind the campaign waged against Jewish Hungarians.

Nonetheless, back in 1942, there were more sophisticated ways of eliminating Jewish competition from the meat market other than simply checking one’s political affiliation. Selling fresh beef was the job of Dezső Szamek at the cow slaughterhouse, where on 1 May, 1942, he was offered more than the official maximum price for half of a freshly slaughtered cow. By then, the authorities had realized that the circumstances of total war, the limited availability of livestock, and the almost unlimited needs of the army required much more control over meat products than what a peacetime market mechanism could provide. Therefore, they introduced a cap on the number of animals selected for slaughtering and put another cap on the prices as well.12 In this specific case, butcher Dezső Szamek, who was of Jewish descent, had been offered a higher price than this set maximum, and he did not realize the catch in the situation. Once he accepted the offer, he was almost immediately arrested by policemen and was held behind bars for approximately a year because of his carelessness.13

His was not a unique case, as several unwanted Jewish or leftist butchers were eliminated with the use of similar tricks. Obviously, they lost not only their licenses to work but were also subjected to severe fines. Somewhat more general and much more violent actions against Jewish butchers happened only sporadically, when for example the meat bought by Jewish retailers was simply confiscated at the slaughterhouse by radical extremist butchers from the Garay market hall.14 Witnesses claimed that Károly Dancs belonged to the leaders of the radicals, who had by force attempted to put their Jewish colleagues into an untenable situation as early as 1942–43.15

Discussions among the Budapest Butchers and Their Anachronistic Apprentice System

Placing these anti-Jewish incidents into the internal discussions held among the members of the meat industry, I could identify three major themes that occupied the thoughts of these people in wartime Budapest. Quite clearly, the above mentioned anti-Semitic acts belonged to those topics which evolved around the so-called Jewish question, but there was equally a lot told about the distribution of meat between the butchers and, finally, the members often discussed issues related to the apprentice-system as well. Understanding the butchers’ individual decision-making processes would be a difficult task without dwelling a bit around these three themes.

Starting at the end, the apprentice-system was chiefly about the next generations of butchers, but it was also connected to the existing businesses. Professions such as butchering had traditions which stretched back to the late medieval guild system, where a member of a guild would train a young apprentice who worked for him for years. Small modifications were often made to this traditional on-the-job-training system, but it remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries. One of the features which did not change was that it demanded enormous sacrifices, especially from the apprentice.

Typically, one would enter apprenticeship at a well-established butcher’s around the age of 14 and stay there for some three to four years, working almost as an in-house servant. Only after this challenging three-year-long learning process had been completed would the apprentice become an assistant butcher. This stage in a career usually lasted many years in order to give the assistant butcher the chance to gain experience and the savings necessary to open his own butcher shop. Nevertheless, before an assistant butcher could officially become a member of the professional group of butchers, he had to take the “master’s exam,” an examination with which the professional group could also control the number of incoming competitors. Take the example of András Krizsán, who was born in 1865. At the age of fourteen, young Krizsán became a butcher apprentice in 1879, and he remained in this position for three years.16 As a next step, he was then promoted to assistant butcher, a position he held for no less than eight years, and only in 1890 was he able to pass the master’s exam for butchers and subsequently open his own shop. Thus, it took Mr. Krizsán some eleven hard years to become an independent butcher.

Understandably, the young men of interwar Budapest were able to find much easier career options than this. In this growing metropolis, even unqualified factory workers could sometimes count on immediate sizeable incomes and they could also retreat for paid holidays. Butchers were not always able to compete with the salaries and benefits offered by manufacturers, public transport companies, or the growing Budapest nightlife to young workforce.17 In addition, opening a new butcher shop required a substantial investment. At the same time, modern industrial developments created a need for fast and specialized workforces, meaning that the tradition of passing all the knowledge about a specific profession became increasingly difficult from one generation to the next one.

Nevertheless, the butchers of Budapest organized master’s exams every year, and they even held these exams in 1943-44, simply because this exam had a crucial double function. On the one hand, it separated competent from incompetent, on the other hand, it provided an entry control to the profession for the association of Budapest butchers. The further downfalls of the apprentice system in the modern era is a subject that remains outside of the focus of the present paper. It was an issue which caused problems in the professional cluster under discussion, nevertheless, in the next section of this essay, I am rather going to turn my attention to the details of the remaining two themes of the Budapest butchers’ frequent discussions, namely the anomalies of meat distribution and its interplay with the so-called “Jewish question.”

Meat Distribution and the “Jewish Question”

When in 1941, the Hungarian government placed restrictions on the purchase and sale of meat products, the decision was made to tie meat distribution to the size of businesses within the meat industry. In theory, the authorities wanted to protect employees this way. In practice, this meant that the amount of meat a butcher could get at the slaughterhouse depended on the number of assistant butchers and apprentices he was employing, and the number of shops he was running. However, the quality of the meat was no less important than the quantity, therefore connections and political affiliation greatly mattered at the slaughterhouse, and it appears that those distributing the meat happened to be almost exclusively the followers of right-wing Hungarian nationalism. Butchers whom they disliked were doomed to wait until the end of the day, when high-quality meat was no longer available and even low-quality meat was not available in adequate quantities. At least this is how Konrád Fischer recalled the situation. He was a butcher who had regularly stood in line from early morning until late evening for some 50 or 60 kilograms of meat.18 Those who had better access to fresh meat and better treatment from the slaughtermen were members of the right-wing organizations and representatives of big companies.

Following the war, Mihály Fejes from Visegrádi utca, in a letter dated 5 March, 1945 and sent to the denazification committee, tried to explain his membership in the Arrow Cross Party, which he had joined in 1942.19 His explanation included wartime threats, according to which, had he refused to join the Arrow Cross, he would have gotten less and less meat, which outcome could have led to the closure of his shop. Mr. Fejes attached a Persilschein signed by one of his Jewish Hungarian customers declaring that he had always sold him meat (even in 1944) and he had also sent some food for the customer to a Yellow star ghetto house.20 It is noteworthy that Mr. Fejes submitted these documents in 1945 from an internment camp which was a regular post-war destination for people who had been accused of having been members of the Arrow Cross party. It is also revealing that in the spring and summer of 1945, this kind of wartime affiliation was enough for someone to lose his or her job and his or her freedom for some time.

However, less than two years after the war, when the People’s Court had to reach a decision in a similar case where the condemned butcher had appealed against the verdict reached by the immediate post-war denazification committee, the evaluation process was much more lenient. This difference had something to do with the impending leftist switch in Hungarian public and political life. To get a sense of this, one needs merely read the arguments used by the judges in the case of Károly Dancs, who was mentioned earlier and who had been accused of robbing the Jewish butchers of their meat in 1942 at the slaughterhouse. For this misconduct in August 1945, the justificatory committee banned him for life from working in the meat industry, while the People’s Court changed this ruling and reduced the term of the ban to one year. In its verdict issued on 20 September, 1946, the People’s Court maintained that butcher Dancs had only joined the Arrow Cross party because of the pressing economic circumstances, which were a consequence of the war. According to the judges, Dancs’s anti-Jewish actions were caused by the misleading extreme-right propaganda, which as a simple worker, he had been unable to resist. Furthermore, in any case, his actions allegedly had originated primarily from a just social class struggle against the big businesses, and these actions only had a secondary anti-Jewish character.21 This reasoning illustrates how, paradoxically, wartime anti-Jewish sentiment was at times transformed into a post-war antisemitism. In these instances, even in a denazifying procedure, the leftist anti-capitalist propaganda could create a common platform between former Nazis and new leftist candidates for power.

True, being a butcher in Budapest became an increasingly difficult profession during Second World War due to the lack of food stuff, however, the situation had not been much easier in the pre-war years. Already in 1936, there were no less than 920 individual entrepreneurs in this trade in the city, and they had to compete not only with one another, including the bigger companies, but also with the state-run food selling chain. This enterprise, the Községi Élelmiszerüzem, inevitably had advantages in accessing foodstuff and setting its prices, as it did not have to bring in much profit.22 The situation was manageable as long as the government did not start to restrict the butchering of animals due to the war. Once there was not enough meat, it became obvious that the shrinking supply could not keep all the individual butcher shops of Budapest profitable.

The fact that there was not an adequate supply of meat to provide an income for all the members of this industry puts the anti-Jewish acts described above into perspective: they were part of the broader debate which could be formulated vaguely as “whom should be eliminated from the Budapest butchers in order to secure the survival of the rest of the businesses?” And one growingly popular answer to this question was the word “Jews.” To be sure, the so-called “change of the guards” [in Hungarian Őrségváltás] notion, i.e. the Christian takeover of Jewish positions in economy, was widely present among large segments of Hungarian society.23 The first anti-Jewish regulations were popular among the gentile population, and these measures resulted in significant gains for the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross movement in the parliamentary elections of 1939.

In line with this, the periodical Hungarian Meat Industry Workers’ Journal (Magyar Husiparosok Lapja) regularly pointed out, for example, the Hungarian settlements where no Christian butcher shops were available, suggesting by this not just career options in the provinces but also that there was a need to counter the alleged “Jewish influence.” Yet, for the purpose of this paper, it is much more crucial to point at the Christian and rightist preferences that were practiced on a daily basis at the slaughterhouses in the Hungarian capital. Knowing this, the wealthy Zeidl butcher company, for instance, always sent an employee who had an affiliation with the Arrow Cross to do the wholesale shopping.24

According to people’s recollections after the war, several similar buyers had worn the Arrow Cross badge, and names were even mentioned of meat distributors who had been known for giving better quality products to those who had openly supported the Arrow Cross leader Szálasi and, in general, the Nazi German war efforts.25 Slaughterman István Varga declared that Jewish butchers should not even try to buy meat at the slaughterhouse, but rather should go to Palestine.26 Another slaughterhouse worker, Mr. Somody, reportedly wore both the green shirt of the Arrow Cross uniform and the movement’s badge every day.27 The Kozma brothers had been producing various types of meat products for years, however, in 1942, realizing that due to their Jewish background they had hardly any access to fresh meat, they decided to lease their workshop and shop in Rökk Szilárd utca. Two years later, when the lease contract was about to expire and the Jewish owners did not intend to prolong it, the non-Jewish butcher threatened to hand them over to the Nazi Germans, who in the meantime had occupied the country.28 Those affected also remembered that soon after the original business takeover in 1942, photos of Hitler and Mussolini were displayed in the shop window.

And these pictures lead us to the issue of the choices made by customer, as in its practical way, these choices can be understood as expressions of opinion within the debate on the Jewish question. It should be stated that in wartime Budapest, there was clearly a need for trusted extreme right-wing meat sellers first. Only after this need had emerged did the butchers begin listing themselves in selective trade organizations that ensured the seller’s political “trustworthiness” for the politically conscious customers. For instance, a case was recorded of a lady from district VI, who stopped shopping for meat at the nearby butcher only because this butcher had not taken her advice and had not joined the Arrow Cross Party or the Alliance “Marok”, an organization of the rightist suppliers.29 The extreme right “Marok” even published its own yellow pages for right-wing consumers.30

Therefore, when attempting to understand the behaviour of butchers, we need to keep in mind the mounting pressure on the macro level, where masses of Hungarians related their nationalist aspirations to a Nazi German-led new world, including in this a racially inferior judgement over their Jewish fellow-citizens. The growing popularity of antisemitism on the macro level was present in the butchers’ everyday lives because of the influence of the clientele. Yet on the micro level of the meat industry workers, there was much stronger group pressure, where political belonging mattered the most when butchers needed to do wholesale meat shopping. Through the strong extreme right mentality of the dozens of slaughtermen and butchers working at the slaughterhouses, the community was able to influence the political preferences of the Budapest butchers. This serves as a crucial factor when one attempts to understand how these individuals functioned and made their decisions in the first half of the 1940s. Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that onto the window of another butcher shop on Szív utca, in 1942 an announcement was placed with the following text: “Here we do not serve Jews.”31

The Jewish Question and Respectability

Let us return to the group of Budapest butchers and consider some of the other ways in which the so-called “Jewish question” was understood by them during the Holocaust. The advantage of microhistory is exactly that it “provides more compelling insights into the events that contemporaries faced in their day-to-day lives” and “it gives increased attention to the categories of actors, the strategies of individuals and small groups.”32 One aspect of the meat industry workers’ group strategy in connection to the so-called “Jewish question” was exercised again and again through meat distribution, where those butchers who belonged to the extreme right—those with a dislike towards Jews— had the upper hand. But the “Jewish question” was also raised in the sense of respectability within the group of the Budapest butchers. Generally, respectability is created by social morals, manners, the way someone is expected to behave, look, and represent something or someone. Thus, respectability in short is and was about social acceptance and respect. To draw on the ideas of George L. Mosse again, respectability is the “cement holding society together,” and because of the Nazi movements and anti-Jewish laws, during the Second World War, “it had not been considered respectable to be a Jew.”33 To borrow a term from Erving Goffman, the “social identity” of Jews due to the anti-Jewish campaigns became stigmatized, which appeared to be “deeply discrediting.”34

In this respect, within the micro world of Budapest butchers, we have a prominent example in the person of Mr. Damásdi, who prior to the war had held the deputy leader position within the Budapest meat industry association. Being of Jewish decent, he had been removed from his post in 1939–40, however, after the end of the Second World War, Mr. Damásdi came back and became the president of the very same organization. As president, he oversaw the activity of the justificatory committee entrusted with the denazification of the professions of butcher and slaughterman, and he often reflected on how becoming an outsider at the beginning of the war had hit him. His reflections on this wartime outsiderdom can help us reconstruct when and why being Jewish started to matter among the Budapest butchers.

The first notable event in this process occurred in 1939, when in the Valeria coffee house there was a discussion in the course of which influential butchers like Mr. Schadutz and Ferenc Gábriel expressed their concerns over the leaders of the Budapest butchers’ professional chamber. They claimed that their leaders had had their demands rejected by the authorities far too often, allegedly because of the Jewish presence within their leadership. This discussion led to the initiative to “politely ask” Damásdi, who at the time was the deputy head, to leave his position.35 Thus, Mr. Damásdi and other Jewish Hungarians were found unfit to represent the Budapest butchers in public, and, here clearly, being Jewish started to matter in a negative way. This moment was also perceived as an occasion for a change in the elite within the meat industry workers’ community on the pretext that Jews could not represent effectively enough a professional trade anymore in a world in which Jewishness is perceived as inferior. Later, when the leadership of the meat workers’ chamber was re-elected, the lawyer of the Budapest Butchers’ and Slaughtermen’s Chamber was not permitted to enter the room where the actual meeting took place because of him being a Jew. He was, however, allowed to keep his position.36

It is even more telling that in early 1943, another butcher at the official gathering of the meat industry workers’ leaders recommended having the portraits of those colleagues from the “hall of fame” of the Budapest butchers’ trade chamber removed, who came from Jewish families.37 It is fascinating that the periodical of the meat industry workers found the proposal something worth reporting, but it is even more striking that these Budapest butchers wanted to eliminate the Jews even from the historical memory of their profession by removing these photos from the walls of their chamber’s building. Although this proposal still belongs to the realm of social prestige, there is a shift here towards internal stigmatization: since the premises of the Budapest butchers’ chamber were used exclusively by the meat industry workers, the question did not concern what the group displayed towards the society. Rather, it was about expressing and reinforcing an already internalized prejudice. Thus, initially, the group’s aim was to maintain respectability due to the perceived expectations of outsiders, while these later actions were driven by the already internalized prejudice.

Let us not forget about the tragedy of the members of the Hungarian Second Army who were taking part in the Nazi Garman attack against the Soviet Union. Thousands of these Hungarian soldiers died in the winter of 1942–43 at the Don river bend, while trying to fight the Red Army without proper equipment. Was removing the portraits of Jewish butchers from the wall a reaction to the tragic losses, or did it rather have more to do with the future envisioned by the Budapest butchers? It is difficult to answer these questions, but surely in a more radicalized society with the ongoing war, Jewish butchers were more and more side-lined, and soon the exclusion affected Jewish customers and business partners of the non-Jewish butchers as well.

However, the general situation in the meat industry was also in sharp decline in Budapest. Livestock from the provinces was rarely sent to the Hungarian capital, as farmers could already sell the animals at a high price at nearby locations. This triggered further governmental interventions into the businesses of butchers. By 1 January, 1943, rationing of meat products was introduced in Budapest, where every inhabitant of the city was entitled to just 0.4 kilograms of beef and 0.1 kilograms of pork weekly. Yet, setting these limitations did not solve all the problems.38 As a representative of the butchers’ chamber phrased it in the city council of Budapest when complaining about the fact that only very poorly fed animals had been sent to the slaughterhouses in the summer of 1943, “certainly enough meat ration cards have been issued, but there is not enough meat available.”39

Some Changes, Options, and Decisions among the Budapest Butchers during the German Occupation and the Reign of the Arrow Cross Party

For Jewish Hungarians, the situation worsened the most radically with the Nazi German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. Soon after this, Regent Horthy appointed Döme Sztójay as the new prime minister, and from April the same year, Jewish Hungarian individuals were marked with a yellow star badge on their clothes. On 22 April, the government issued new regulations on the supply of Jews, which effectively excluded Jews from meat consumption: order 108.500 K.M. reduced their meat ration to 0.1 kilogram of beef or horse meat per week.40 As a young Jewish Hungarian mother, Mrs. Dévényi noted in her journal after learning about the new food access limitations: “[t]he Jews’ food ration is decreasing. We are not allowed to consume milk, eggs or butter. […] They want to starve us gradually.”41

Once the Sztójay government came into power, it took only a little more than three months to ghettoize and deport to Nazi concentration camps more than 432,000 people from the Hungarian provinces, the vast majority of whom were tragically murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Budapest, ghettoization was a later and more complicated process than in the countryside. In the capital, a dispersed ghetto was established in June 1944, which in practice meant individual apartment buildings, so-called “Jewish houses” or “Yellow star houses,” in which groups of Jewish Hungarians were confined.42 Therefore, in the capital city, apartment buildings became the basic units of the ghetto, at least until November, 1944.

Deportations were halted in early July, thus most of the Jews in Budapest at least were not removed outside of the country, but their living conditions were harsh, with only one member per family permitted to leave the “Yellow star house” for the daily food-shopping for a short period of time. In June 1944, this period was first set between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., which later was changed to 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., but this still meant that by the time the ghetto inhabitants reached the markets, the non-Jews had already purchased much of what was available.43 Therefore, a lot depended on alternative sources of food and on how many resources and savings Jewish Hungarians still had.

I want to introduce here the case of Mr. Béla Kling, a butcher from Csányi utca in district VII, who after the war was falsely reported for improper wartime behaviour. As Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann sees it, every trial offers more than just a forum for justice, as it can also set moral examples, it can tell a story, etc.44 Butcher Kling could not read Hausner’s words, yet he used his denazification procedure for more than just the opposition of a false accusation, but for telling how he had confronted the anti-Jewish campaign. He has showed the ways how he had resisted when Nazi Germans and extreme right nationalists had been piling pressure on Jewish Hungarians in 1944. Kling used invoices issued in April and May, 1944 to prove that he had ordered services from Jewish Hungarian mechanics even after the Nazi Germans had taken control of Budapest. As late as on 26 May, 1944, while trains filled with Jewish Hungarians were running towards Auschwitz, butcher Kling paid a massive sum, 626 pengős, to a Jewish Hungarian mechanic named Mr. Reichard to repair and maintain his refrigerators.45 From another Jewish mechanic Kling ordered the instalment of an electric neon advertisement.46 At a time when Jewish Hungarians were already a highly stigmatized group, these were brave acts. This holds true even if we take into consideration the fact that Kling was in a better situation than other butchers. Since he had been selling meat to army units for years, he could more easily afford to make humanitarian gestures than most of his colleagues during the war.

Nevertheless, there were other Budapest butchers who showed solidarity in this period. The butcher shop of Mr. Winter, for example, sold bigger portions of meat to Dr. Dezső Erdész in district VIII even after the governmental decree forbade Jews to purchase meat products.47 Another butcher, János Szladovits, had an agreement with the neighbouring shoe-repair shop: for his Jewish Hungarian customers, he always took some of the meat to the shoe-repair shop for the transactions. His Jewish customers were able to enter the business without much risk, since it was not forbidden for Jews to have their shoes fixed.48 After leaving the money, the customers quickly walked back to their “Yellow star house” with the food they had purchased. This method demonstrates that if a butcher wanted to sell meat products to Jewish Hungarians, he was able to circumvent anti-Jewish decrees and regulations concerning food rations. Another way was to deliver meat directly to the ghetto house, as Vilmos Szabó did. Szabó and his wife took turns delivering food to their client, Mrs. Engel, in Wesselényi utca.49

On 15 October, 1944, Horthy attempted to withdraw from the Axis alliance, however this attempt was aborted shortly after the radio announcement of his plan. The Regent was held by the Gestapo, and on the next day the extreme right Arrow Cross movement’s leader, Ferenc Szálasi formed a government with the support of the occupying Nazi German forces. Shortly after this, Adolf Eichmann arrived in Hungary and requested the “loaning” of 50,000 able-bodied Jewish Hungarians from Budapest to the Third Reich. Jewish Hungarians were then soon moved from the “Yellow star houses.” Those who had protective papers like the ones issued by Raoul Wallenberg, could settle in the buildings of the so-called international ghetto, whereas the majority was moved to the “main ghetto,” which was set up in district VII, around Klauzál Square.

The changes in the Hungarian political leadership provoked changes at the top of the Budapest butcher’s hierarchy as well. A certain Mr. Gruber became the head of the professional chamber, and he created a new list of the Arrow Cross-affiliated butchers. It was this list of people who from now on were to receive proper supplies of meat.50 Since the popular market hall on Klauzál Square became part of the newly established main ghetto, non-Jewish meat sellers originally located there started to request new butcher shops from Mr. Gruber. The aim was to relocate outside of the ghetto to those several empty business premises that had been confiscated from Jews. Among those requesting new shops was Mrs. Czakó, who was remembered as having publicly shown her husband’s Arrow Cross party membership card to the new leader, Mr. Gruber.51 It is interesting from a gender point of view how Mrs. Czakó, whose husband had been recalled by the army took the initiative within this patriarchal society and went to the head of this male-dominated professional cluster to present her requests in the late autumn of 1944.

However, it is even more interesting how butchers and other ordinary tradesmen intended to profit from the anti-Jewish rules and get themselves better shops, positions, etc. at the expense of the excluded Jews. Again, we have some positive examples, like the aforementioned butcher Kling. Several survivors of the Holocaust spoke about how, during their time in the closed ghetto (December 1944–January 1945), Mr. Béla Kling had brought them meat, animal fat, etc., which meant putting his own liberty and life at risk.52 Elsewhere, the non-Jewish Pál Tóth, who normally ran a butcher business at the Garay market hall, survived the Soviet siege of Budapest in a building, where Jewish Hungarians lived under the protection of the Swedish embassy. He took meat to the building and even cooked it and offered it to the ghettoized people.53


These last examples prove that for many everyday Hungarian tradesmen, such as the Budapest butchers, there were some options available to help their Jewish neighbours’ survival. When helping, butcher Kling was potentially saving his customers’ lives, and thus his acts could be seen as having been motivated by personal interest. Still, the manner in which he maintained his business relations with Jewish handymen after the German invasion of the city suggests that he simply cared about others. Because Kling hired these Jewish men, they were able to earn money at a time when their own government was already limiting their space of existence and their opportunities. For some of them, at times, the signs of humanity could have meant more than the actual economic reward.

However, the real value of these micro historical cases is not in their representativeness, but in the “additional information generated by analysis conducted on the microscale.”54 In fact, the role of micro history is to describe how individuals or small groups manoeuvre within a normative social set-up: their actions and decisions tell a lot about the cracks and the contradictions of the given social system. They also give us an idea of the extent of freedom in which these individuals could make their choices.55

Reading these archival sources results in the impression that generally in 1942–43, there were very strong intentions within the butchers’ trade to make it impossible for the Jewish butchers to continue to pursue their trade. The deep professional crisis with which the Budapest meat industry was confronted during the Second World War certainly played a part in this, but targeting systematically the Jewish Hungarian colleagues, nevertheless, suggests that anti-Jewish sentiments were widely shared within this professional cluster. The tendentious pro-extreme right preference at the slaughterhouses clearly had been influential in reinforcing these trends in the micro world of the Budapest butchers, but other, more macro factors were important as well.

One such factor was, for instance, the changes in social respectability, which led to a change as early as 1939–1940 in the leadership of the butchers’ professional chamber. Thus, the anti-Jewish tendencies in the history of the Budapest butchers could be explained partly by the group’s aim to maintain social respectability in a society in which Jews were stigmatized, partly by the internalized anti-Jewish prejudice, but as a third explanation, self-interest undoubtedly played a crucial role here as well. Governmental meddling into the affairs of the meat industry through food rationing, efforts to stock up on meat, and regulations concerning the number of slaughtering activities, etc., made things even worse.

However, butchers like János Szladovits, Mr. Winter, and Mr. Kling demonstrated that it was always possible to bend the rules and provide meat for Jewish clients, even after the Hungarian government had made this a rather difficult task to achieve. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the denazification check interestingly took over some functions of the “master’s exam,” as through this process it was possible to control the re-entry into the profession of butchers after the war. Consequently, this denazification check provided an excellent opportunity not only for retribution, but also for the vengeance of wartime insults. In the end, approximately 93 percent of the Budapest butchers got the green light to continue practicing their profession following the denazifying check, while some 7 percent of them were either banned or suffered even harsher punishments.56 One example of the latter group was Mr. Károly Jánossy, who had a butcher shop at Népszínház utca 27 in district VIII. Although his wife had requested his denazification following the war in March 1945, this request was rejected due to an ongoing investigation of the People’s Court.57 The investigation established that Jánossy had treated Jewish Hungarian forced labourers cruelly during the war by beating them, and even causing fatal injuries to some of them, while also calling them “stinky Jews”.58 This Budapest butcher was sentenced to death in June 1946 and was executed as a war criminal on 17 February, 1947.59


Primary sources

Budapest Főváros Levéltára [Budapest City Archives] (BFL)

XVII. 1597. A Budapesti Mészárosok és Hentesek Ipartestületének Igazolóbizottsága Iratai [Files of the Justificatory Committee of the Budapest Butchers’ and Slaughter-men’ Chamber], 1945–46.

XVII. 1598. A Magyar Házfelügyelők és Segéd-házfelügyelők 291/a. sz. Igazoló Bizottságának iratai [Files of Justificatory Committee no. 291/a of the Hungarian Concierges and Assistant Concierges], 1945–47.

XXV. 1.a 1945/2185 Kele Máté és Társai Büntetőpere [The criminal court case of Máté Kele and other defendants].

Magyar Husiparosok Lapja [The periodical of Hungarian meat industry workers], 1942–43, volumes 4–5.


Secondary sources

Barna, Ildikó, and Andrea Pető. Political Justice in Budapest after World War II. Budapest: Central European University, 2015.

Cole, Tim. Holocaust City: The Making of a Jewish Ghetto. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Czingel, Szilvia. Szakácskönyv a túlélésért [Cookbook for survival]. Budapest: Corvina, 2013.

Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Jason Aronson, 1974.

Hadas, Miklós, and Gyula Zeke. Egy fölösleges ember élete: beszélgetések Vázsonyi Vilmossal [The life of an unnecessary man: conversations with Vilmos Vázsonyi]. Budapest: Balassi, 2012.

Hausner, Gideon. Justice in Jerusalem. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Huhák, Heléna, András Szécsényi, and Erika Szívós, eds. Kismama sárga csillaggal: Egy fiatalasszony naplója a német megszállástól 1945 júliusáig [Mother-to-be with yellow star: Diary of a young woman from the German occupation to July 1945]. Budapest: Jaffa, 2015.

Jarausch, Konrad H. Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Levi, Giovanni. “On Microhistory.” In New Perspectives in Historical Writing, edited by Peter Burke, 93–114. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Margittai, Linda. “Zsidókérdés a Délvidéken” [Jewish question in Lower Hungary]. PhD Diss., University of Szeged, 2019.

Markó, Géza. “Marok” kereskedők és iparosok szaknévsora [“Marok” yellow pages]. Budapest: Held, 1941.

Mosse, George L. Confronting History: A Memoir. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2000.

Stone, Dan. Goodbye to all that? The story of Europe since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Zalc, Claire, and Tal Bruttmann, eds. Microhistories of the Holocaust. New York: Berghahn, 2016.

1 Jarausch, Broken Lives, 238.

2 This truce agreement was signed in Moscow on 20 January 1945. See Barna and Pető, Political Justice in Budapest, 14.

3 The Magyar Nemzeti Függetlenségi Front [Hungarian National Independence Front] was formed on 2 December, 1944 in Szeged, south-east Hungary. It was founded by the following political parties: the Independent Smallholders Party, the Hungarian Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, the National Peasant Party, and the Civic Democratic Party [Független Kisgazdapárt, Magyar Kommunista Párt, Szociáldemokrata Párt, Nemzeti Parasztpárt and Polgári Demokrata Párt].

4 Jarausch, Broken Lives, 266.

5 Dan Stone claims that, in general, the Allied occupiers of Germany did not want to criminalize the German masses because of their concerns over future Western European security. Yet with regards to the process of denazification, there were differences, since it was “far more energetically pursued in the American zone than in the French or British…” Stone, Goodbye to all that?, 54–55.

6 See Ferenc Bukovszky deputy president’s speech in the periodical of the Hungarian Meat Industry Workers [Magyar Husiparosok Lapja], 15 May, 1942, vol. 4, no. 21, 1–3.

7 The abbreviation stands for Magyar Állat és Állati Termékek Kiviteli Szövetkezete.

8 As one reminiscent recalled, “the role of MÁSZ was to make sure the Christian idea prevailed in the slaughterhouse” [In the original it reads: “A MÁSZ-nak az volt a szerepe, hogy az ún keresztény gondolatot juttassa érvényre a vágóhídon.” HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no 1., A Budapesti Mészárosok és Hentesek Ipartestületének Igazolóbizottsága Iratai [Documents of the justificatory committee of the Budapest Butchers and Slaughtermen], the case of Brzezanszky. Hereafter I reference this material merely by the archival number HU BFL XVII. 1597.

9 Mosse, Confronting History, 108.

10 Ibid., 53.

11 Ibid., 172.

12 It was decree no. 2760/1941 of the Ministry of Public Supply [Közellátásügyi Minisztérium] in April 1941 that announced the maximum number of animals for slaughter per settlement. It also named the MÁSZ as the authority that was responsible to supply the Hungarian capital with meat.

13 HU BFL XVII. 1597, Find this in the case of Flórián Gyurasits, within this case see especially the statements of Mr. Kapay, recorded on 6 October, 1945.

14 The confiscation is mentioned, for example, in the discussion of József Bors’s case (BFL XVII 1597, box no. 1), on 1 October, 1945, but also in the case of Sándor Varga, BFL XVII 1597, box no. 6.

15 Sándor Varga claimed that he could not speak up against the violent confiscation of meat because of Dancs’s aggressive, commanding style. See on this BFL XVII 1597, box no. 6, an appeal from Sándor Varga to the People’s Court, arrived on 12 June, 1945. A certain László Tóth, a member of the Arrow Cross Party allegedly also belonged to this violent group. See his case at BFL XVII 1597, box no. 5, and within his file a document numbered 3221/1945.

16 See Mr. Krizsán’s obituary published in the periodical of the Hungarian Meat Industry Workers [Magyar Husiparsok Lapja], 26 March, 1943, vol. 5, no. 13, 3.

17 The periodical of the Hungarian Meat Industry Workers blames explicitly the technical and industrial expansion that damaged in general the interests of artisans. “A tanonckínálat fokozása,” Magyar Husiparosok Lapja, 1943, vol 5, no. 22, 1.

18 HU BFL XVII. 1597, See the appeal of Konrád Fischer addressed to the People’s Court on 2 October, 1945.

19 HU BFL XVII. 1597, See the case of Mr Fejes discussed by the Justificatory committee on 15 May, 1945.

20 HU BFL XVII. 1597, See this in the Fejes case, and within that the statements signed by Ferenc Kuzért and Lipót Mandel.

21 HU BFL XVII. 1597, People’s Court decision under the number 5094/1945/2, issued on 20 September, 1946.

22 The so-called Községi Élelmiszerüzem [Municipal Food Store Network] was founded in 1911, and to give an idea of its size, in 1937 it had 600 employees and its trading was estimated in the region of 13 million pengős. See on this the speech of Ferenc Vály at the Budapest City Assembly quoted in Magyar Országos Tudósító, 1937/257. 3.

23 See on the notion of the Change of the guard or, in Hungarian, on Őrségváltás most recently Linda Margittai’s dissertation: Margittai, Zsidókérdés a Délvidéken.

24 HU BFL XVII. 1597. See the case of István Zeidl in box no. 6, especially see the discussions on 29 September, 1945.

25 HU BFL XVII. 1597. Find this in the case of Gyula Kelemen.

26 HU BFL XVII. 1597. The case of István Varga, see the records of the hearing held on 8 December, 1945.

27 HU BFL XVII. 1597. See the case of Árpád Somody in box no. 5.

28 HU BFL XVII. 1597. See the case of András Várszegi/Winkhardt who after the war was arrested because in 1944, he had blackmailed the owners to renew the rental contract. The denazification authority withdrew his license for five years, and banned him from working as a butcher.

29 HU BFL XVII. 1598. The files of Justificatory Committee no. 291/a of the Hungarian Concierges and Assistant Concierges, district VII, the case of Mrs. János Hofgart from Barát utca 9, see the hearing of Mr. Jenő Branstadler on 22 August, 1945.

30 See more on this in Markó, “Marok” kereskedők és iparosok szaknévsora.

31 Hadas and Zeke, Egy fölösleges ember élete, 100.

32 Zalc and Bruttmann, Microhistories of the Holocaust, 2–3.

33 Mosse, Confronting History, 180, 211.

34 Goffman, Stigma, 2–3.

35 HU BFL XVII. 1597, the case of Ferenc Gábriel box no. 2, see the minutes of the Justificatory Committee dated 5 June 1945.

36 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 1. This lawyer was Miksa Leipnik, who recalled this election during the discussion of Antal Ihász’s case in October 1945.

37 This initiative came from Gyula Kádár, and it is mentioned in the periodical of meat industry workers, Magyar Husiparosok Lapja vol. 4, no. 9, 23 February 1943 under the title “Elöljárósági ülésről készült beszámoló” [Report about the meeting of the board].

38 It was decree no. 114.070.1942 of the Ministry of Public Supply [Közellátásügyi Mininisztérium] that from January 1, 1943 introduced food ration cards as the only “currency” for which meat products could be sold. Magyar Husiparosok Lapja, vol. 5, no. 1, January 1943, 1. Find here also the exact numbers for weekly consumption per capita on p. 6, in an article entitled “Értekezlet a husjegyrendszer bevezetéséről” [A meeting about introducing the rationing].

39 Magyar Husiparosok Lapja vol. 5, no. 27, 2 July 1943, 3, a quote from Béla Usety’s speech.

40 Decree number 108.500 K.M., entitled “about regulating the food supply of Jews” [a zsidók élelmiszerellátásának szabályozásáról].

41 Huhák et al., Kismama sárga csillaggal, 44.

42 Cole, Holocaust City, 101–29.

43 Decree numbered 1920/1944.M.E., while on the changes of shopping schedules, see Czingel, Szakácskönyv a túlélésért, 99.

44 See Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem, 76.

45 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no 3, the case of Béla ifj. Kling. See the invoice issued by László Reichard on 26 May, 1944.

46 Ibid., see the invoice issued by Mr. Unterberger.

47 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 6, find this episode in the case of Mrs. Jenő Winter from Lujza utca 2.

48 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 5, the case of János Szladovits from Róbert Károly krt. 34–36.

49 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 5, the case of Vilmos Szabó, see the statements of Mrs. Engel, Mr. Blau, and Mrs. Klein.

50 HU BFL XVII. 1597, See for example the case of Antal Schwalm on this.

51 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 1, the case of Balázs Czakó, see the testimony of Lenke Illyefalvi on 9 June, 1945.

52 HU BFL XVII. 1597, the case of Béla ifj. Kling, box no 3. Find the declaration of the former inhabitants of Nagyatádi Szabó / Kertész utca 35, dated 28 March, 1945.

53 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 5, the case of Pál Tóth, Kárpát utca 3.

54 Zalc and Bruttmann, Microhistories of the Holocaust, 4.

55 Levi, “On Microhistory”, 93–95.

56 HU BFL XVII. 1597, box no. 6, a complaint letter of a Communist Party official.

57 HU BFL XXV.1.a-1945-2185 the case of Máté Kele and other defendants.

58 Ibid., a sentence numbered Nb.VI.2185/1945, dated 25 June, 1946.

59 The research to this article was partially sponsored by the Central European University Foundation of Budapest. The theses explained herein are representing the own ideas of the author, but not necessarily reflect the opinion of Central European University Foundation of Budapest / Közép-európai Egyetem Institute for Advanced Study.


Neglected Restitution: The Relations of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property and the Hungarian Jews, 1945–1948

Borbála Klacsmann
University of Szeged
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 3  (2020): 512-529 DOI: 10.381/2020.3.512

This paper deals with the restitution provided to Hungarian Holocaust survivors by the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, in the first post-war years (1945–1948). This commission was the first national institution, which handled and took care of the assets of Holocaust victims and which was supposed to give compensation to the survivors. By investigating the cases conducted by the local representatives of the institution, this paper gives insight into certain aspects of Jewish–non-Jewish relations after the war, as well as how these relations and the restitution process were affected by other actors, such as the government commission itself, the political parties and the government. Additionally, the attitude of the most important Jewish associations toward the government commission is also scrutinized.

Keywords: restitution, Government Commission for Abandoned Property, Jewish property, property transfer, post-war

“On April 21, due to the approaching Russians, we evacuated. We were all brought to Sachsenhausen. […] From Sachsenhausen, the healthy were taken, only the weak and seriously ill were left there. Among them, me. At noon next day the Russians liberated us. I was taken to hospital and taken good care of for three months; they managed to feed me up to 42 kilograms. My future plans depend on the homecoming of my mother and siblings.”1

Usually recollections recounted in front of the National Committee for Attending Deportees2 ended like the story above. However, this was not the actual end of the stories of survivors, as the Holocaust and its consequences had an impact on their later lives. The damages caused to the persecuted were categorized into two groups by Stephen Roth: damages to the person and material damage.3 As a result of their ruined health, the psychological trauma they suffered, the loss of their relatives, the violation of their human rights (the loss of professional and personal freedom, human dignity, social security, etc.), and the confiscation of property, returning survivors had to rebuild their lives from scratch. The governments tried to aid the survivors in various ways, first and foremost by returning material assets or providing compensation instead. Often rehabilitation was needed, while many perpetrators were tried and condemned alongside. However, as Ágnes Peresztegi points out, it was impossible to compensate the survivors for damages to the person. Only symbolic acts could be made in this case, such as providing state annuities.4

At the end of World War II, Hungary became a democracy and the government abolished all previous anti-Jewish laws and decrees. The process of restitution, however, started slowly, and the question of compensation was not raised. The new laws condemned the anti-Semitism of the previous regimes, but they did not accept the responsibility of the Hungarian state. It was thus not immediately obvious that the persecuted would receive any compensation at all.

Like many of the other harms suffered by Jews, the effects of the theft of their property and belongings did not disappear without a trace; the survivors faced additional difficulties due to the lack of proper restitution, and these hardships accompanied them for years and had a grave influence on relations between Jews and non-Jews. Local authorities struggled to make just decisions in these legally and ethically difficult situations, since in the absence of the original owners, many of the properties in question had been given to people in need, including poor families with many children.

In the postwar chaos, initially there was political will for settling property issues. As a result, the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, the task of which was the handling of “abandoned” goods, was founded in 1945. However, the institution did not manage to fulfill its assigned role, as was expected by the reestablished Jewish community. Thus, the survivors often had to try to pursue their own interests on a local level in a field interwoven by the political, economic, and social interests of the government, a governmental institution, and their own representative organizations. Besides high politics, the inner life of micro-communities (Jews, non-Jews, local civil servants, members of the authorities) also had an influence on whether any restitutions would be made in a given locality.

This article attempts to uncover how the functioning of the government commission influenced the lives of the survivors and what kind of relationship evolved between the Jewish community and the institution. “Jewish property” is thus a focal point of this text, and it therefore needs clarification: first and foremost, it refers to properties that were confiscated during the Holocaust and belonged to persons who had been defined as Jews according to act IV of 1939, one of the major anti-Jewish laws. According to this law, anyone who was Jewish by faith or who had one Jewish parent or two Jewish grandparents was defined as Jewish. Since I draw on cases involving private individuals, I consider instances involving personal property, not collective property. The government commission used the term “abandoned properties” to refer to property that had neither an honor nor a legal heir. This included valuables that had belonged to Jews or non-Jews and the original owner of which could not be found at the end of the war.

The Legal Background of Confiscations and Restitution

Hungarian Jews became quite successful in an economic sense after emancipation in 1867. Nonetheless, they gradually began losing their wealth from the end of the 1930s as the acts XV of 1938 and IV of 1939 restricted the proportion of Jews to 20 percent and then to 6 percent in economic and intellectual occupations. As a result, approximately 90,000 people lost their jobs.5 Act IV of 1939 and XV of 1942 limited the right of a person defined under law as Jewish to own private property by allowing for what was referred to as the “Aryanization” of agricultural and forest estates owned by Jews. Act XV of 1941 prohibited the marriage of Jews and non-Jews.

After the German occupation in March 1944, the confiscations were accelerated with the assistance of the Döme Sztójay government. In April, Jews were obliged to declare assets worth more than 10,000 Pengős. During the process of ghettoization, they were allowed to take only 50 kilograms of personal property based on the order of the 6163/1944. BM. VII. res. confidential decree. In the approximately 200 ghettos in the country and in the course of the deportations, the gendarmes and German guards confiscated the last valuables of the victims.

The government tried to control the redistribution of “abandoned” Jewish properties with little success.6 After the authorities had taken inventories of the items left in locked-up Jewish houses, the gendarmes and policemen, who were in charge of the process of redistribution, often took these items.7 Members of the authorities, civil servants, and private individuals all made claims to real estate which had been owned by Jews. Houses and shops which had not been redistributed were often plundered by the locals.8 As all layers of society profited from the process of “Aryanization,” Róbert Győri Szabó calls this aspect of the confiscations “institutionalized robbery.”9

In November of 1944, Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross government introduced a new decree (3840/1944. ME.) which meant the culmination of the confiscations. According to the decree, anything owned by a Jew was to be nationalized, and thus everything that was confiscated became the property of the state. This decree also prescribed that these assets were to be used to cover the costs of war efforts and war pensions.

After the war, the exclusion and stigmatization of the Jews were abolished by the fifth point of act V of 1945.10 In the short democratic period, the Hungarian governments tried to reestablish the rights of Jews and to regulate property rights and issues connected to confiscated Jewish property with several laws and decrees. Decree no. 300/1946. ME. constituted a milestone in this process, as it provided survivors the right to reclaim their “Aryanized” properties. Act XXV of 1946 repeated and thus strengthened the withdrawal of every anti-Jewish law. At the same time, according to the act, any property which had been owned by a Jew but which had been left without an heir was to be given to a fund which would use its income to aid needy survivors and their institutions.11

Act XVIII of 1947, which ratified the Paris Peace Treaty, consolidated the previous achievements: among the political ordainments of the treaty, one obliged Hungary to provide legal equality to all of its citizens and take the responsibility to restore every asset confiscated due to the owner’s origins or religion after September 1, 1939. If restoration was not possible, compensation was to be provided instead. The law also stipulated that goods that had not been claimed by their owners or heirs within half a year would be automatically given to organizations which represented the persecuted and would be used to help provide support for survivors.12

This law strengthened act XXV of 1946, based on which the National Jewish Restitution Fund was founded under the control of the government and the two major Jewish organizations, the National Bureau of Hungarian Israelites (Magyar Izraeliták Országos Irodája, hereafter referred to as MIOI) and the Central Bureau of Orthodox Denominations (Magyarországi Autonóm Orthodox Izraelita Hitközség, hereafter referred to as MAOIH). However, the Fund was established only in 1947, and by the time it started functioning, the Government Commission for Abandoned Property had been liquidated. Thus, in the four years after the war, the latter institution handled heirless properties.

The Government Commission for Abandoned Property and its Functioning

The Government Commission for Abandoned Property was a national institution which functioned under the supervision of the prime minister’s office from May 1945 until 1948. According to decree no. 727/1945. ME., which established the institution, it was supposed to take care of properties without an owner, to aid “persons who lost their wealth or livelihood; seek and bring home the deported.”13 It had to give at least partial restitution to those concerned.

Though most of the sources produced by the commission were burnt during the 1956 revolution, it is clear from the leftover fragmented material that, of the abovementioned tasks, it fulfilled only the handling of “abandoned” properties. This is underpinned by the fact that a later decree, which also regulated the role of the institution (10.490/1945. ME.), did not even mention restitution. The government commission was in charge of establishing whether an item was “abandoned.” It had to find these objects, rent them out, supervise the caretakers, and make decisions concerning the claims of the original owners or heirs. The costs of the institution’s functioning were covered from the rental fees paid for the rented goods and the wealth handled.

The Ministerial Council elected the government commissioners and came to decisions regarding the institutional structure.14 The first government commissioner was Dr. Rudolf Legéndy. He was followed by Gyula Zombory15 and, then, Jenő Molnár. Their work was supervised by the national Court of Auditors and the presidential council of the government commission. The latter was created by the same decree that established the commission itself. It acted as a court of appeal, so clients who were displeased with the decisions of the government commissioner could turn to it for assistance. The leader of the council was also appointed by the prime minister, while its members were invited by the president from the member parties of the Hungarian National Independent Front,16 the ministries, the council of trade unions, and other authorities.17

Several factors affected the work of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property. First and foremost, efficient administration was hindered by frequent reorganizations, an overly-bureaucratic inner system, and frequent changes of the staff.18 This went hand in hand with a decreasing work morale; moreover, the colleagues of the institution had to take care of so many cases that it was impossible to handle all of them. As a result, the files accumulated and only half of them were dealt with.

In addition to its center in Budapest, the government commission’s network had agents all over the country: there were representatives present in every county and bigger city.19 The work of the representatives was helped by local civil servants, who were chosen specifically for this reason, altogether approximately 400 individuals.20 These “trustworthy civil servants”21 were appointed by the municipalities at the order of the főispán,22 and they were prepared for their tasks at meetings that were held in every district.23

Initially, two decrees regulated the fate of “abandoned” properties.24 According to these decrees, the objects had to be declared at the central office of the government commission or in the municipalities, even if someone only knew about them but did not own them, or if someone had obtained them as a result of the discriminatory measures.25 Banks were obliged to declare the wealth of those who “departed due to deportations or fled for political reasons.”26 Not fulfilling this obligation counted as theft or embezzlement and could result in a penalty of 8,000 Pengős or internment.27 Anyone who “searched for and declared a significant number of abandoned objects, will be rewarded [by the prime minister].”28

The Functioning of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property in the Light of Specific Cases

Cases based on source analysis offer insights into the functioning of the government commission on a local level, the actions of the representatives, the kinds of problems which arose in the course of the processes, and the ways in which the representatives, party members, civil servants, and the clients themselves could deepen them. In short, the case studies may reveal whether the government commission could fulfil its obligations prescribed by the decrees.

In March 1946, Rezső Ernszt sent a letter to Tibor Papolczy, the representative of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property in Kiskunhalas. His request was the following: “For my 20-acre vineyard, please allocate me a cart. Considering that during my deportation my equipment was looted, completing the necessary work is impossible without a cart.”29 It becomes clear from the quote that during the processes of ghettoization and deportation, the farm was either plundered by the locals or the local government redistributed the properties found there. Ernszt received the following answer on the same day: “The representative of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property complies with this request and rents out the accessories of a cart wreck to be built up from the provision at his disposal: 3 wheels, 2 bottoms, 1 side and bottom built together, 1 shaft. The monthly rental fee is equivalent to the price of 4 eggs, which sum must be paid at my office between the 1 and 5 of every month.”30

The rapidity with which this reply was given suggests that the letters were written as a formality and in order to provide documentation for the decision, and Ernszt probably had already spoken with the representative of the government commission in person. The case illustrates the limited success the government commission had in providing the survivors with efficient solutions: it had existed for a year already, during which time the local representative and the civil servants helping him should have had time to search for the “abandoned” properties. However, they obviously did not know what had happened to Rezső Ernszt’s equipment. Therefore, the representative offered Ernszt parts of a wreck which he himself then had to use to build a cart. Moreover, he was not given these parts. Rather, they were rented to him for a monthly fee.

Naturally, Rezső Ernszt was not content with this solution. Two days later, he wrote another letter to the representative: “As I have rented out my vineyard, I do not need the allocated cart wreck anymore.”31 This case is an example of how Jews were given access, at a price, to objects instead of having the property which had been stolen from them restored to them or receiving some form of restitution. This did not lead to constructive and permanent solutions to their cases, and it did not help relieve social tensions, as in villages and smaller towns the fate of the properties and belongings which had been stolen from Jews was often an open secret.

During the early phase of restitution, the authorities frequently did not manage to find a good solution. Not getting back their properties was perceived as a violation of property rights by the Jews, while non-Jews regarded it as a legal offence if they had to return goods that they had come to consider their own. The latter reaction is illuminated by several cases. In January 1946, Mrs. Sándor Bancsi from Vámosatya visited the government commission’s representative in Kisvárda and complained that on January 22, the representative and the police lieutenant of Vásárosnamény took her cow and gave it to Nándor Gottdiener. According to the protocol written about the case, “at that time in June 1944, she swapped her cow for another one in good faith, which had to be turned in. […] The cow, which she gave in exchange for this, was also good, and they turned that in instead of the one she owns now. Now she is there with five children, her husband is dead, she does not have anything, even her last cow has been taken; the milk, which means life, has been taken from her children’s mouths.”32

Then Mrs. Sándor Bancsi pleaded for the cow to be given back, and she asked Nándor Gottdiener to “turn to the Treasury, because she cannot lose her only cow as a consequence of the measures of that time, which would mean irreplaceable damage to her, as she would not have strength to get more or another.”33 The final verdict in this case remains unclear from the sources, but it is characteristic that the woman rejected the representative’s first decision and a change to a situation which had come about as a result of the confiscations. In 1944, many others were in similar situations when they received certain goods which were necessary for the livelihood of their family at a normal price or for free. Moreover, when the new owners paid for the Jewish goods or invested money in reparations, they were more inclined to consider this property their own.

Among the documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, other types of cases can also be found. In a letter written in September 1946 in Nyíregyháza and sent to the central office of the government commission by the local representative Dr. Tibor Fábián, Fábián enumerated the cases of the “Aryanized” livestock of Jews, which all ended in different ways.34 Two clients managed to reach an agreement concerning the fate of a cow, and the verdict reached in one case had to be annulled and the survivor had to give his cattle back to the widow who had obtained them during the confiscations. This case was decided based on the 12th paragraph of decree no. 300/1946. ME., which stated that the basic right of survivors to reclaim their properties could not be applied to livestock and agricultural equipment. The decree had been published in Magyar Közlöny in January, but rural representatives had not been informed about how it should be applied in cases of restitution. Fábián complained about this in his letter: “It is a pity that the government commissioner did not notify us about the correct interpretation of decree 300/1945. ME. at the time of its introduction, thus we made decisions referring to that.”35

At the same time, according to the representative, some of the new owners willingly gave cattle back to returning survivors; but some others, upon hearing the news that the son of the original owner had come back, sold the animal which they had obtained during the confiscations. In the latter case, the representative put a ban on the sale of the cow and ordered the clients to go to court.36 The description offers an example of the chaos of the process and the complexity of the relationships among the people involved, which frequently generated strong tensions. The attitude of the non-Jews, which was driven by various feelings and motives ranging from understanding and flexibility to greed, often influenced and was influenced by the behavior of the returning Jews.

There are sources which shed some light on the ways in which political parties tried to intervene in the functioning of the government commission. The county secretariat of the National Peasant Party (Nemzeti Parasztpárt) in Nyíregyháza, for instance, turned to the central office of the government commission because the local representative, “without any compensation, took the cows of inhabitants of Nyírjákó, which they had bought at regular auctions, and gave them back to the relatives of the previous owners returning from deportation.”37 Following this complaint, the deputy department leader Tihamér Téri sent a letter to the local representative, in which he warned him that such livestock “are not to be considered abandoned and thus they do not belong to the authority of my government commission. The representative’s procedure does not have any legal basis, it is lawless and illegal and a severe transgression of your authority.”38 At the same time, he informed the representative that, according to decree 300/1946. ME., such livestock could be reclaimed only through the court, and if the livestock in question belonged to an agricultural estate, it could not be reclaimed at all. Attached to the letter is the protocol of the public auctions held after the ghettoization on May 10, 1944.39

This letter demonstrates how the confiscations took place on a local level. As soon as the Jews were segregated, their properties were seized; their livestock was sold at auction before the deportations had even begun. At the same time, robberies were committed after the war, as the original owners or their heirs could not get their property or some share of their property back according to the law. Moreover, the case emphasizes two features of the functioning of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property. First, the local representatives of the parties actively participated and intervened in the procedures, which seems to have been an accepted practice, which is proved by the letter of the deputy department leader.40 Second, colleagues of the government commission and especially rural representatives were uncertain which paragraphs of the laws and decrees should be applied in certain cases, which led to further legal complications.

The Attitude of the Jews towards Restitution and the Government Commission for Abandoned Property

During the short-lived democracy, the Hungarian governments made it clear through laws and decrees that they condemned the politics of those who had been in charge before and during World War II. Nonetheless, they did not manage to meet the expectations of the Holocaust survivors. The shortcomings in restitutions can be traced back to complex economic, social, and political reasons, though the explanations lie for the most part in the postwar economic situation. The political leadership was supposed to provide aid for hundreds of thousands of destitute survivors, and they had no previous experience in such a situation.41 An adequate arrangement was hindered by the fear of anti-Semitism: politicians feared that by giving back properties to the original owners, they would incite hatred against the Jews which would lead to pogroms.42

Furthermore, Hungarian radical forces, which included the Hungarian Communist Party (Magyar Kommunista Párt), the National Peasant Party, and the Social Democratic Party of Hungary (Magyarországi Szociáldemokrata Párt) together with the Soviet authorities, advocated new directives, and the importance of restitution was overwritten by the necessity of the economic recovery of the state. They paid particular attention to providing support for the poorest social strata, which had benefitted considerably from the confiscations.43 Misuse of Jewish properties only made things worse. The representatives of political parties had claimed Jewish houses as party offices or had demanded their share of the loot in other ways.44

The central organizations which represented the interests of Jews were displeased with the situation. They voiced their opinion at meetings with government representatives, as well as in petitions sent to the prime minister and on the pages of Új Élet (New Life), the biggest Jewish newspaper. The editors regularly informed the readers about the new laws and decrees, and they gave accounts of the meetings held by MIOI, MAOIH, and government representatives.

In December 1945, the paper started a discussion of the issue of restitution with a strong, one-page-long article. It voiced criticism of the slow process of bringing home the deported and government policies concerning restitution of stolen property: “The declaration of the government representative […] cannot satisfy the Jews in the sense that it leaves an open question: when and to what extent will these obligations be fulfilled. […] The returning [survivors] find ravaged homes, houses, looted shops; they are deprived of everything and cannot cover even the most primitive living conditions.”45 The paper emphasized the fact that the survivors were given aid by international Jewish organizations and the International Red Cross,46 and “without the appropriate foundations, they cannot join in productive work.”47 Referring to law and national feeling, the national bureaus representing the Hungarian Jews believed that “the honor of the Hungarian nation requires that crimes shall be punished; justice, recompense and reparation shall be provided […]. Recompense and reparation are not only in the interests of Hungarian Jews, but are in the interests of the entire Hungarian nation.”48

Concerning the decrees that aimed at returning the properties of Jews, the journalists emphasized more than once that “we do not seek ‘privileges,’ but an arrangement according to justice which would help the thousands of robbed, impoverished people get back their necessary properties.”49 They most probably tried to take the wind out of the sails of anti-Semitism with this argumentation. They objected to the fact that, according to decree no. 300/1946. ME., “things necessary for a living,” namely things on which the livelihood of the new non-Jewish owners depended did not have to be returned to the original owners.50

At the same time, “the decree deals with the question of the life circumstances of the Jew, who happens to have survived the persecution, ghetto, or the hell of deportation, the aggrieved party [emphasis in original article], merely by sending him to the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, where he can claim objects ‘for use’ before others.”51 But the paper called attention to other controversial legal practices as well: “This measure of the decree invokes severe legal complications, because in the cases described in the third paragraph, it respects the measures of the fascist and Arrow Cross ‘authorities,’ thus giving immunity and privilege to the lucky obtainers, which Hungarian law or general civil law does not recognize.”52 The article depicted the confiscations and the lack of restitution as one continuous process from a legal point of view.

In February 1946, Új Élet gave an account of a meeting between representatives of the government and Jews. At this meeting, the Jewish representatives proposed again that goods the original owners of which (or heirs to) could not be found should be transferred from the treasury to a “Jewish fund” which would be used to provide aid for impoverished survivors. They criticized the misuses which had taken place during the administrative processes of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property.53 Ernő Munkácsi, the secretary of the Israelite Denomination of Pest and the Jewish Council, expressed dissatisfaction because “the properties of the fascists and the deported Jews are treated in the same way.”54

Government representative and state secretary István Balogh emphasized that the government wanted to give the Jews the moral and material compensation which they deserved, but it was not in a position to do that. He referred, for instance, to the dangers of anti-Semitism, while with regards to the concerns of Jews, he answered that the Jewish organizations received special representation in the government commission. Gyula Zombory, the then government commissioner, added that Jews should set up cooperatives which would then put them in an advantageous position when it came to the redistribution of properties.55 Therefore, the leaders of the Jewish community and the representatives of the government talked about two different topics: the Jews found it logical that they would claim their property back and use property which went unclaimed to provide support for needy survivors, while the politicians and the government commissioner avoided addressing these issues and made it clear that restitution would not happen in the way that the Jewish organizations were demanding.

In May 1946, Munkácsi collected the grievances of the Jews in an article. In addition to the abovementioned grievances, he also found it unfair that “they made numerous decrees which consider us, with good will, but usually these were made without asking us in advance.” Moreover, these measures “feared to state openly and without limitations that whatever was taken from the Jews must be given back.” This caused “numerous loopholes, excuses and a hurdle-race everywhere; everywhere the acceptance of ‘irreversible facts’ and forcing Jews to accept this.”56

According to Munkácsi, one of the main offences committed against the Jews was that survivors could not even get their estates back: “True, in theory they could get an estate in exchange, but this happened only in a small number of cases. On the other hand, many times a Jew who had just returned from deportation or military labor service and started to work his old land had to leave it.”57 He stressed again that it was a grave error that the Government Commission for Abandoned Property handled the wealth of Jews and Arrow Cross members together. “Moral reasons rule out the possibility that the democratic Hungarian state be a beneficiary of the mass murder in any form!” he claimed.58 Finally, he called to the attention of his readers the fact that the Jews were not merely seeking restitution of their properties but were also entitled to get compensation for the suffering they had endured.


Due to the persecution, the postwar life of the survivors changed dramatically. In addition to losing relatives and friends, upon their return, they also had to face the fact that, during the processes of ghettoization and deportation, they had been left penniless. Getting back their properties (or properties which had been owned by family members) depended on local and national factors, i.e. on relations with non-Jews, the benevolence of the local municipality and its civil servants, government politics, and the functioning of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property.

The Hungarian government did not initiate a centrally controlled restitution program during the few years in which the country was under the administration of relatively democratic governments after World War II. Instead, the Government Commission for Abandoned Property was assigned to make decisions concerning the property issues of Jews and non-Jews. This process and the functioning of the government commission was met with dissatisfaction among the central organizations of the Jews, all of which kept the topic on their agendas in their petitions, during meetings with politicians, and on the pages of the most widely read Jewish newspaper. The lack of restitution of every previously Jewish-owned piece of property which had been owned by a Jew and the suppressed interests of Jews meant that survivors were often only able to restart their lives with the help of international Jewish organizations.

It is typical in the process of restitution that the terminology that was used in 1944, during the confiscation of Jewish properties, was still used in the years of democracy. The properties were referred to as “abandoned,” and this euphemism suggested that anyone in possession of this property had not illegally acquired it or stolen it. Continuity can be observed even from a legal point of view, as the redistribution following the confiscations was not annulled by the government, and thus it accepted and maintained the previous injustice. Thus the governments which were in power in Hungary between 1945 and 1948 can be said to have failed the surviving Jewish community not simply because of the failures in policies concerning restitution, but also by failing even to apologize or give compensation for the non-material damages suffered by Holocaust survivors.

The responsibilities of the National Jewish Restitution Fund created in 1947 ranged from starting and revising inheritance lawsuits, searching for unclaimed Jewish property, and renovating or selling the acquired buildings to support Jewish social institutions. Though it seemed like a genuine effort towards restitution for Holocaust survivors, in the emerging communist system the government maintained the institution only for formal reasons to ensure that Hungarian Jewish wealth was transferred back from Western Europe. In 1955, the Fund lost its independence and was merged with the National Church Office.


Primary sources

DEGOB – Deportáltakat Gondozó Országos Bizottság [National Committee for Attending Deportees] http://degob.org/. Accessed September 30, 2018.

Magyarországi rendeletek tára [Catalogue of Hungarian decrees]. Budapest: Pesti Könyvnyomda, 1944.

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives] (MNL OL)

XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Pest Megyei Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives, Pest County Archives] (MNL PML)

V.1009 Db Aszód municipality documents

V.1010 Db Bag municipality documents

V.1014 Db Budajenő municipality documents

V.1018 Db Bugyi municipality documents

V.1024 Db Dány municipality documents

V.1075 Db Monor municipality documents

Magyar Zsidó Levéltár [Hungarian Jewish Archives] (HJA)

XXXIII-4-A, documents of the Hungarian division of the American Joint Distribution Committee

XXXIII-5 documents of the National Organization of Hungarian Israelites

Új Élet


Secondary literature

Benosofszky, Ilona, and Elek Karsai, eds. Vádirat a nácizmus ellen: Dokumentumok a magyarországi zsidóüldözés történetéhez [Indictment against Nazism: Documents about the History of Jewish Persecution in Hungary]. Vol. 2. Budapest: MIOK, 1960.

Benosofszky, Ilona, and Elek Karsai, eds. Vádirat a nácizmus ellen. Dokumentumok a magyarországi zsidóüldözés történetéhez [Indictment against Nazism: Documents about the History of Jewish Persecution in Hungary]. Vol. 3. Budapest: MIOK, 1967.

Botos, János. A magyarországi zsidóság vagyonának sorsa 1938–1949 [The fate of the wealth of the Jews of Hungary]. Budapest: Magyar Napló, 2015.

Botos, János. “A pengő megsemmisülése, a forint születése, 1938–1946” [The annihilation of the Pengő, the birth of the Forint, 1938–1946]. Múltunk 61, no. 1 (2016): 160–206.

Braham, Randolph L. A népirtás politikája: A Holocaust Magyarországon [The politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary]. Vols. 1–2. Budapest: Park, 2015.

Cseh, Gergő Bendegúz. “Az Országos Zsidó Helyreállítási Alap létrehozásának körülményei és működése” [Circumstances of the establishment of the National Jewish Reconstructional Fund and its activities]. Levéltári Közlemények 65, no. 1–2 (1994): 119–27.

Gábor, György, “Az Elhagyott Javak Kormánybiztossága” [The Government Commission for Abandoned Property]. In A magyar állam szervei 1944–1950, vol. 1, edited by Károly Vörös, 120–21. Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi, 1985.

Győri Szabó, Róbert. A kommunizmus és a zsidóság az 1945 utáni Magyarországon [Communism and Jewry in post-1945 Hungary]. Budapest: Gondolat, 2009.

Kádár, Gábor, and Zoltán Vági. Aranyvonat: fejezetek a zsidó vagyon történetéből [The Gold Train: Chapters from the fate of the Jewish wealth]. Budapest: Osiris, 2001.

Kardos, Kálmán. “Az Elhagyott Javak Kormánybiztossága” [The Government Commission for Abandoned Property]. Levéltári Híradó 10, no. 2 (1960): 53–64.

Lévai, Jenő. Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről [Black book about the suffering of Hungarian Jewry]. Budapest: Officina, 1946.

Peresztegi, Ágnes. “Reparation and Compensation in Hungary 1945–2003.” In The Holocaust in Hungary: A European Perspective, edited by Judit Molnár, 677–84. Budapest: Balassi, 2005.

Roth, Stephen. “Indemnification of Hungarian Victims of Nazism.” In The Holocaust in Hungary: Fifty Years Later, edited by Randolph L. Braham, and Attila Pók, 733–57. New York: Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, 1997.

Szűcs, László. Nagy Ferenc első kormányának minisztertanácsi jegyzőkönyvei [Proceedings of the Ministerial Council of Ferenc Nagy’s first government]. Vol. 1. Budapest: MOL, 2003.

Ungváry, Krisztián. A Horthy-korszak mérlege [The balance sheet of the Horthy era]. Pécs, Budapest: Jelenkor–OSZK, 2012.

Varga, János. “A miskolci népítélet, 1946” [The mob law of Miskolc, 1946]. Medvetánc 6, no. 2–3 (1986): 293–314.

Vörös, Éva. “Kunmadaras – Újabb adatok a pogrom történetéhez” [Kunmadaras – New data about the history of the pogrom]. Múlt és jövő 55, no. 4 (1994): 69–80.

1 HJA, DEGOB protocol no. 2055, K. H. DEGOB

2 DEGOB – Deportáltakat Gondozó Országos Bizottság (National Committee for Attending Deportees); a Jewish relief organization which collected the testimonies of survivors who returned in 1945. The testimonies are kept at the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives and are available online at: http://degob.org/.

3 Roth, “Indemnification of Hungarian Victims of Nazism,” 736.

4 Peresztegi, “Reparation and Compensation in Hungary 1945–2003,” 677–79.

5 Kádár and Vági, Aranyvonat, 23.

6 Many decrees were introduced for this reason. See for instance: Benosofszky and Karsai, Vádirat a nácizmus ellen, vol. 2, 146–50, document 38/a, planned decree about utilizing Jewish shops (later this plan was accepted as decree 2120/1944. ME. on June 10, 1944), and Benosofszky and Karsai, Vádirat a nácizmus ellen, vol. 3, 221–25, document 109b, Government decree regulating certain issues concerning Jewish property (decree 2650/1944. ME.).

7 Ungváry, A Horthy-korszak mérlege, 562.

8 Braham, A népirtás politikája, vol. 1, 616. Concerning the plunder of Jewish homes, see: MNL PML, V.1075 Db Monor municipality documents 2249/1945. Dr. Jenő Klein’s appeal to the Housing Office about reclaiming her own house, Monor, June 10, 1945.

9 Győri Szabó, A kommunizmus és a zsidóság az 1945 utáni Magyarországon, 121.

10 Act V of 1945 concerning the ratification of the armistice agreed upon in Moscow, January 20, 1945. Decree no. 200/1945. ME. withdrew the anti-Jewish laws, thus making a basis for restitution.

11 The two paragraphs of the law dealing with this were abolished in 1997, with act X of 1997. This law created a fund the task of which was handling the pensions of survivors, namely the Jewish Heritage of Hungary Public Endowment (Magyar Zsidó Örökség Közalapítvány, MAZSÖK). The capital of the National Jewish Restitution Fund created in 1947 was also transferred to MAZSÖK.

12 Cseh, “Az Országos Zsidó Helyreállítási Alap létrehozásának körülményei és működése,” 22.

13 Quotation from the first paragraph of decree no. 727/1945. ME.

14 Gábor, “Elhagyott Javak Kormánybiztossága,” 120–21.

15 Social Democratic politician Gyula Zombory led the government commission from September 17, 1945 to June 14, 1946. See: Szűcs, Nagy Ferenc első kormányának minisztertanácsi jegyzőkönyvei, vol. 1, 812.

16 The Independent Agrarian Workers Party, the Hungarian Communist Party, the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, the Hungarian Peasant Party, and the Civic Democratic Party.

17 Gábor, “Elhagyott Javak Kormánybiztosa mellett működő elnöki tanács,” 119; and Magyarországi rendeletek tára, 932. (Magyarországi rendeletek tára was the official collection of governmental decrees published annually between 1867 and 1945).

18 Kardos, “Az Elhagyott Javak Kormánybiztossága,” 54–56. About the inner structure of the government commission, see: MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, unit I, 8324/1946. Concerning the preparations of the necessary restructuring of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, October 1946.

19 The authority of the representatives was regulated by decree no. 10.490/1945. ME. Gábor, “Elhagyott Javak Kormánybiztosa megbízottja,” 120. See the list of local representatives: MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, unit K, 7/1947. The list was written in April 1946.

20 Kardos, “Az Elhagyott Javak,” 54. See also: MNL PML V.1018 Db Bugyi municipality documents 520/1945. Letter of the Alsódabas district leader to the municipality leadership on the establishment of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, Alsódabas, June 5, 1945.

21 MNL PML, V.1009 Db Aszód municipality documents 501/1945. Concerning the establishment of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, Aszód, May 29, 1945.

22 The főispán was the administrative leader of a county.

23 See, for instance, the letter of the főispán of Pest-Pilis-Solt-Kiskun County (May 23, 1945), MNL PML, V.1018 Db Bugyi municipality documents 520/1945.

24 Decree no. 2490/1945. ME., and order 471/1945 of the government commissioner.

25 MNL PML, V.1010 Db Bag municipality documents 556/1945. Announcing the letter of Károly Bartoss, local representative in Aszód, Aszód, August 23, 1945 (the number of the original letter is 46/1945).

26 MNL PML, V.1014 Db Budajenő municipality documents 719/1945. Letter of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property to the representatives, Budapest (the number of the original letter is 15/S-1945).

27 MNL PML, V.1010 Db Bag municipality documents 556/1945. Announcing the letter of Károly Bartoss. As a reference, according to the data of the Hungarian National Bank, the sustainment index in October-November 1945, increased from 3396 Pengős to 16724. See: Botos, “A pengő megsemmisülése, a forint születése,” 180.

28 MLN PML, V.1024 Db Dány municipality documents 2428/1947. Announcement of the notary of the Gödöllő district, Gödöllő, September 1, 1947.

29 MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property 284/1946. Rezső Ernszt’s letter to Tibor Papolczy, Kiskunhalas, March 16, 1946.

30 Ibid. Verdict of the representative, Kiskunhalas, March 16, 1946.

31 Ibid. Rezső Ernszt’s answer, Kiskunhalas, March 18, 1946.

32 MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property, 3826/1946. Protocol of the verdict of the Kisvárda representative, January 23, 1946.

33 Ibid.

34 MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property 1543/1946. Letter of representative Tibor Fábián, Nyíregyháza, September 20, 1946.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property 17316/1946. Letter of Tihamér Téri to the Nyíregyháza representative, Budapest, May 24, 1946.

38 Ibid.

39 Ghettoization started at the end of April in Szabolcs County, and the deportation began on May 15, therefore the auction was organized between the ghettoization and the deportation. See: Braham, A népirtás politikája, vol. 1, 573, 575.

40 Among the government commission’s documents, similar cases can be found. See for instance: MNL OL, XIX-A-5 documents of the Government Commission for Abandoned Property 10258/1946. The case of József Mermelstein.

41 Győri Szabó, A kommunizmus és a zsidóság, 57–58.

42 Blood libels appeared again in the postwar years, and pogroms were organized in several places, such as Kunmadaras and Miskolc. See Vörös, “Kunmadaras – Újabb adatok a pogrom történetéhez,” 69–80; Varga, “A miskolci népítélet, 1946,” 293–314; and Braham, A népirtás politikája, vol. 2, 1502–5.

43 Braham, A népirtás politikája, vol. 2, 1491, 1494. See also: Botos, A magyarországi zsidóság vagyonának sorsa 1938–1949, 67, 72.

44 Cseh, “Az Országos Zsidó Helyreállítási Alap,” 120.

45 Anonymous, “A magyarországi zsidóság küzdelme elégtételért és jóvátételért,” Új Élet, December 11, 1945, 1.

46 International organizations, first and foremost the International Red Cross, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the World Jewish Congress aided destitute survivors and the institutions helping them between 1945 and 1948. The Joint Distribution Committee established a whole network of soup kitchens and health care institutions, and they organized courses to provide education for survivors. About the constructive aid of the Joint Distribution Committee, see: MZSL, XXXIII-4-A, documents of the Hungarian division of the American Joint Distribution Committee, unit 46. Announcement, Budapest, November 10, 1945.

47 Anonymous, “A magyarországi zsidóság küzdelme,” Új Élet, December 11, 1945, 1.

48 Ibid. This article echoes the petition of the leaders of the Neolog denomination (April 20, 1945), which also referred to the honor of the nation and the international situation: Hungary “can be shown understanding by the foreign democratic powers if it shows serious will for the compensation of grave crimes and choosing new paths.” MZSL, XXXIII-5 documents of the National Organization of Hungarian Israelites, unit 26. Account of the measures brought for the interests of the Jews by the Israelite Denomination of Pest and the MIOI, Pro memoria, July 23, 1945.

49 Anonymous, “A zsidóság ‘elvesztett’ ingóságai,” Új Élet, February 7, 1946, 2.

50 See paragraph 3 of decree no. 300/1946. ME.

51 Anonymous, “A zsidóság ‘elvesztett’ ingóságai,” Új Élet, February 7, 1946, 2.

52 Ibid.

53 Anonymous, “Mit követel a magyar zsidóság,” Új Élet, February 14, 1946, 2.

54 Ibid. The properties of “relocated” Germans and war criminals also counted as “abandoned,” and they were handled by the Government Commission for Abandoned Property.

55 Ibid.

56 Ernő Munkácsi, “Nyíltan megmondjuk…,” Új Élet, May 2, 1946, 1–2. The same worries and grievances were expressed by the MIOI in its August 1945 petition sent to Prime Minister Béla Miklós, as the leaders of the denominations were not involved in the law-making processes, the government handled the properties of leftist and Jewish persecutees differently, and “Aryanized” shops could only be reclaimed, if the relatives of the deceased owner had trade certificates. See Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 270.

57 Ernő Munkácsi, “Nyíltan megmondjuk…,” Új Élet, May 2, 1946, 2. With decree no. 600/1945. ME. the government ensured that Jewish owners got their land properties back, with the exception of properties that had been subject to exchange. Though according to the decree those who received the land had to pay the original owners, this did not happen. Compensations were later extended to livestock and agricultural equipment. Thus, most of the Jewish communities and survivors lost their estates.

58 Ernő Munkácsi, “Nyíltan megmondjuk…,” Új Élet, May 2, 1946, 2.


From Collaboration to Cooperation: German Historiography of the Holocaust in Hungary

Ferenc Laczó
Maastricht University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 3  (2020): 530-555 DOI: 10.38145/2020.3.530

This article provides an overview of German research on the Holocaust in Hungary. Its first part sketches four larger contexts of the professional study of the Holocaust in Germany to show why, though it was one of the major chapters of the genocide against European Jews, the Holocaust in Hungary has not emerged as a preoccupation among German historians. The second and longer part examines the premises, conclusions, and reception of the three most relevant German-language monographs on the Holocaust in Hungary and immediately adjacent subjects. I argue that the Holocaust in Hungary has only been discovered in German historiography as a result of larger shifts starting in the mid-1980s, and the number of specialists in Germany dedicated to its study and the level of cooperation between scholars in the two countries has remained surprisingly limited. Nonetheless, German historiography has been responsible for path-breaking and widely discussed monographs regarding Hungary, with the publication of Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach’s Das letzte Kapitel in particular serving as the subject of a transnational quarrel among historians in the early years of this century. I close with the stipulation that, with the further development of all-European perspectives on the Holocaust and growing interest in the last stages of World War II, the Hungarian case might be a more frequent subject of discussion in scholarly contexts that would ensure increased international visibility and attention in the future.

Keywords: Historiography, Hungary, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, German-Hungarian relations


This study offers an overview of German-language research on the Holocaust in Hungary with a focus on historical monographs published in Germany (but not in other countries where German is the most spoken or one of the official languages). Its core section analyzes the methods, conclusions, and reception of three major monographs on relevant subjects.1 The books in question are, first and perhaps most importantly, Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly’s Das letzte Kapitel: Realpolitik, Ideologie und der Mord an den ungarischen Juden 1944/45. Originally released in 2002, Gerlach and Aly’s book has been widely discussed internationally and, especially since its translation in 2005, also in Hungary.2 German-language publications on Hungary with clear bearings on our subject also include two perhaps somewhat lesser known but similarly substantial monographs from the late 1980s, namely Margit Szöllösi-Janze’s history of the Arrow Cross, entitled Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn. Historischer Kontext, Entwicklung und Herrschaft,3 and Rolf Fischer’s study of Hungarian anti-Semitism until shortly before the genocide against Hungarian Jews, entitled Entwicklungsstufen des Antisemitismus in Ungarn 18671939: die Zerstörung der magyarisch-jüdischen Symbiose.4 I chose these works in part because they are arguably the most significant recent scholarly accomplishments in the field, but also because the focus on monographs enables the study of their varying receptions and the occasional interaction between scholars in the two countries.

After offering a brief summary of the key arguments of the major scholarly contributions in question and a discussion of their transnational reception, I embed the German scholarship on the Holocaust in Hungary in its broader contexts. I begin by sketching four such larger contexts to explain why the Holocaust in Hungary did not emerge as a more important subject in German historiography.5 These contexts are the emergence and changing priorities of contemporary history writing in postwar (West) Germany; the increasingly detailed and nuanced explorations of Nazi mass violence; growing attention to the main settings of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe in recent decades; and the place of Hungary in the regional-comparative study of Central and Eastern Europe.

What this paper cannot offer (though the subject would certainly merit a similarly detailed study) is an exploration of German public remembrance and its evolution over time with a focus on the various roles Hungarian actors have played in shaping it, for instance by contributing to major postwar trial as witnesses or experts or critiquing key German products of self-documentation and self-examination (see, perhaps most notably, Krisztián Ungváry’s response to the first major exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht in the mid-1990s). Nor do I intend to sketch the reverse of my current subject here, i.e. the role Hungarian historians have played in Germany and how their research has drawn on and may have influenced German scholarly discussions.

Major Contexts

The early postwar years saw the institutionalization of contemporary history writing (Zeitgeschichte) in the Federal Republic of Germany.6 The intention to deal with the Nazi past served as a major impetus behind the establishment of a decentralized field, with the Munich-based Institut für Zeitgeschichte founded in 1949 emerging as its key institutional setting.7 Though (unsurprisingly) more attention has been devoted to the postwar period since the early postwar years, the twelve years of the Third Reich have remained one of the central foci of German contemporary history writing in the seven decades since.

The agenda of dealing with the Nazi past has generated a multifaceted process over time. However, despite the central location of Nazi Germany within historiographical discussions of the contemporary era in the Federal Republic, the attention devoted to Nazi mass crimes has shown significant variation over time, with more recent decades seeing a massive increase. As Ian Kershaw insightfully remarked, long into the postwar period, West German historians seemed more interested in accounting for 1933 than attempting to explain 1941–42. In other words, they tended to devote much more attention to the origins of the Nazi dictatorship than to the origins or crimes of the Holocaust.8 As Frank Bajohr has put it, in the first decades after the war, German scholars preferred merely to interpret rather than actually research the history of the latter.9 Important scholarly accomplishments from earlier decades notwithstanding, the emergence of the Holocaust as a seminal subject in German historiography can be considered a relatively recent phenomenon which began no earlier than the mid-1980s.

Due to the presence of significant numbers of Jewish “displaced persons” in Germany after liberation, documenting and interpreting the Holocaust (avant la lettre) on German soil actually started practically immediately at the end of World War II.10 This exceptional situation in the immediate aftermath of the war was soon over though, and it is fair to state that no major early Holocaust historian with longer-term international impact was active in the two Germanies of the early postwar period.11 Despite its devoted and professional focus on Nazi Germany, when it came to research on the Holocaust, the discipline of history in Germany thus lagged significantly behind the study of history in other countries, including the writings of a number of prolific “survivor historians” in Poland, France, Hungary, the United States, or the newly established State of Israel.12

Triggered by a new generational constellation and partly also by the Eichmann trial and especially the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial of 1963–65,13 both of which had significant though understudied connections to the new understandings of the implementation of the Holocaust in Hungary and the experiences of survivors, the 1960s and 1970s brought about a first wave of substantial scholarly works on Nazi mass violence.14 Even so, German historians continued to devote—in retrospect, surprisingly—little attention to the genocidal aspects of Nazi rule, and key aspects of the Holocaust continued to be practically ignored.15 The breakthrough of Holocaust historiography did not take place until the 1980s and especially the 1990s.16 In his recent overview of the development of what he has called a difficult field, Ulrich Herbert identified the years between 1985 and 2000 as the period of most intense engagement with this darkest chapter of German history.17

Perpetrator research has remained one of the special strengths of local historiography. Inspired partly by the groundbreaking works of scholars from outside Germany such as Christopher Browning,18 the 1990s saw a whole host of refined and detailed research projects into concrete aspects of the implementation of the Holocaust and elaborate debates regarding its major and more “ordinary” perpetrators.19 These research endeavors led to a substantial transformation of the image of Holocaust perpetrators from within German society and across the continent, not to mention an expansion of their numbers. No longer was this group reduced, in the scholarship, to a small minority of fanatical Nazis. The category of Holocaust perpetrator now came to be applied to hundreds of thousands. The process has also resulted in a reconceptualization of the context of and motivations behind the perpetrators’ deeds.

In this period (between 1985 and 2000), several new subfields of professional Holocaust historiography also emerged. Perhaps most importantly, in contrast to the previous decades, German scholars started to devote themselves to the study of the perspectives of the persecuted as well.20 Such a boom in Holocaust research in the late twentieth century notwithstanding, the fact that for a long time the massive growth of German scholarship did not lead to the establishment of major centers or independent chairs devoted to Holocaust Studies remained rather conspicuous in international comparison.21 While there have been attempts to develop such centers in recent years, German historians of the Holocaust continue to be active at diverse institutions, and the established historians of contemporary times, unlike in North America, for example, have rarely been exclusively or even primarily devoted to the study of this subject.22

In the meantime, the end of the Cold War and the fall of communist regimes not only resulted in the unexpected and sudden unification of the two Germanies but also brought crucial changes in the basic circumstances of the study of the Holocaust. The postwar decades, when, from a West German point of view, the central locations of the Holocaust had practically all been “behind the Iron Curtain,” were now over. Crucially for historians, the new accessibility of the major theaters of World War II and the Holocaust meant that local archival materials were now much more easily available. The dramatic political changes would thus lead to a new temporal and geographical focus in the study of Nazi Germany too: a profound interest in the second six years of the regime and the appearance of numerous publications which offer nuanced local contextualization of its major crimes.23 Such attempts at local contextualization have often (and with direct bearing on our subject) also highlighted the pronounced roles played by non-German perpetrators.24

Despite this notable “eastward” shift to the actual settings of the implementation of the genocide, much of the German historiography has not only continued to insist on the allegedly “unique” features of the Nazi period, but has remained primarily interested in the history of the German state and society during those twelve years.25 In other words, the increasing internationalization of Holocaust research and the Europeanization of the subject of research notwithstanding—processes to which German scholars have actively contributed—comparative and transnational approaches to the Nazi period have been rather slow to develop.26

In this context, new specialized studies on the involvement of East European states and actors offered a significant corrective to the practically exclusive focus on German Nazis familiar from previous decades. As Dieter Pohl put it, the new “common sense” among scholars is that East European states pursued radical programs of ethnic homogenization during World War II, and these programs included an “anti-Semitic consensus” which, however, aimed at realizing somewhat different goals than Nazi Germany: whereas a politics of extermination was being implemented by the latter, the policies of the former typically aimed for expropriation, exploitation, and expulsion under Europe-wide circumstances largely but not exclusively created by Germany.27 As Pohl has added, in practice, there was substantial overlap between the two agendas though, which eventually meant that the East European states and societies became actively involved in perpetrating genocide.

In more recent years, the very term “collaboration” has also been contested, partly because of its clear moral undertones but also because it implies a rather strict hierarchy among actors. The more neutral-sounding concept of cooperation, which also allows for more impactful forms of local initiative, has repeatedly been suggested as a potentially more adequate alternative. The discussion among German historians regarding the relative merit of the two terms is ongoing. Its outcome is likely to have important consequences for the ways in which the deeds of East European actors will be conceptualized in the future, and the history of the Holocaust in Hungary could potentially provide intriguing evidence for discussions and debates concerning this question.28 However, Hungary’s trajectory and transnational connections admittedly continue to occupy rather peripheral places in German historiography of the Holocaust; as a matter of fact, German historians continue to draw on Hungarian-language primary sources and scholarship originating in Hungary only in rather exceptional cases.

To move to the fourth major context of German historiography on the Holocaust in Hungary, German historians often prefer to place Hungary into a broader regional perspective. In this perspective, Hungary, like Romania, Slovakia, and Croatia, figures as a state in the Nazi sphere of influence with notable levels of independent agency.29 A key interpretative thrust concerning these countries has aimed to explore the connections between their foreign policy considerations and their “Jewish policy” during World War II.30 The gist of the argument here could be briefly summarized as follows: their trust in a German victory after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union made these countries cooperate avidly with the Axis, partly in order to curry favor with the imperial giant at one another’s expense. Their trust also made them swiftly radicalize their anti-Jewish drive in 1941–42 to the point of active involvement in genocide. However, the change in the tide of the war in 1942–43 turned them into much more cautious or even unwilling satellites.

This interpretation is, by and large, applicable to both Romania and Slovakia. However, the special timing of the main phase of the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944–45, i.e. after the main phases of the Europe-wide genocide and the clear reversal of fortunes on the Eastern Front, means that such links are rather tenuous in the case of Hungary. Hungarian actors had on several occasions committed mass murder against Jews in Hungary or in Soviet territory before 1944, and they had initiated deportations from Hungary shortly after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941,31 but the main phase of the Holocaust in Hungary (the deportation of approximately 437,000 persons from Hungary, the very large majority of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the course of less than two months) coincided with the beginning of what turned out to be the last year of the war in Europe.32

1944–45 amounts to a highly specific phase of World War II and of Nazi German history too. As compared to the impressive efforts historians made to account for the origins of the Nazi Endlösung decades ago,33 these last waves of Nazi violence have begun to be studied in comparable detail only recently.34 The further radicalization of the Nazi regime in the last stages of the war could indeed be usefully studied in combination with the most similar case of Hungary, not to mention the need to uncover in more detail the decisively important interactions among the representatives of the two countries and the members of the two societies in the same period.

To summarize, contemporary history writing emerged early in postwar West Germany, and this growing field has produced substantial and increasingly nuanced explorations of Nazi mass violence. However, only in recent decades has there been a closer focus on the actual settings of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, though without the Holocaust in Hungary emerging as an important preoccupation for German historians.

Key Contributions

Having sketched four major contexts of the German study of the Holocaust in Hungary, let us now turn to the most significant achievements of German historiography regarding this subject. Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly’s Das letzte Kapitel is in my assessment the towering achievement in this regard. In his most recent volume, Tim Cole, a leading British authority on the Holocaust in Hungary went so far as to place Das letzte Kapitel next to Randolph Braham’s seminal The Politics of Genocide,35 calling the book one of the two comprehensive, internationally available histories.36 At the same time, Cole contrasted these two major works in several respects, pointing out that whereas Braham drew “in the main on national level Hungarian state archives,” the German authors drew “primarily on German documents.”37 Perhaps more importantly, Cole asserted that the two overviews crucially diverge in their understandings of why the Holocaust was carried out in Hungary: “In what approaches the playing out of the so-called intentionalist vs. functionalist debate that dominated Holocaust Studies in the 1970s and 1980s in miniature, these authors differ over whether a Nazi master plan for deportations was implemented in Hungary, or greater importance should be assigned to the local dynamic in the radicalization of measures.”38

Das letzte Kapitel not only constitutes the sole monographic study on the subject in German, it can also be considered innovative in several respects. Gerlach and Aly’s book devotes substantial attention to the prehistory, motivating factors, and background of the Holocaust in Hungary. Following a theoretically- and methodologically-oriented introductory chapter, the book analyzes Hungarian–German relations in the interwar years, the socioeconomic situation of Hungarian Jews, and the anti-Semitism of the Horthy era. The coverage of these themes is in turn followed by a discussion of the key reasons behind and an analysis of the concrete manner of implementation of the German occupation; the composition and functioning of the occupying apparatus; state-organized economic expropriation and redistribution; and the decision-making process and policies of annihilation. Last but not least, the book covers the persecution of Hungarian Jews after the major wave of their mass deportation in May, June, and July 1944 as well as their main survival strategies, including their sufferings as slave laborers.

Das letzte Kapitel was authored by two well-recognized German scholars who have published several other important works on Nazi rule, the Holocaust, and extreme forms of violence.39 Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach were first recognized for their studies on the planners of annihilation and the connections between the German war economy and genocide, respectively, which were published in the late 1980s and 1990s.40 In recent decades, Aly has arguably come to shape the German debates on Nazi mass violence and its origins perhaps more than any other author.

In her review, Heidemarie Petersen highlighted that their joint monograph from 2002 might be viewed as Aly’s and Gerlach’s attempt at combining their previous explanatory models.41 Their monograph indeed approached Hungary as a case study to explore political, socioeconomic, and military historical connections, and it provided the first such complex study of a much neglected major chapter of the Holocaust. As it was written by two prominent scholars with established reputations, Das letzte Kapitel was arguably bound to be rather widely received in Germany and to shape the reigning conceptions of the Hungarian chapter of the Holocaust. Several scholars with important contributions of their own to the historiography, such as Frank Golczewski, Thomas Sandkühler, Tatjana Tönsmeyer, and Michael Wildt, have indeed offered summaries, contextualizations, and assessments of the book on the pages of scholarly journals and in major daily newspapers.

The book has also been widely received and debated in Hungary. Upon its release in Hungarian translation in 2005,42 it was reviewed in various scholarly forums, including non-historical venues such as the journal on social policy Esély (Opportunity) and Közgazdasági Szemle (Review of Economics), as well as Hungarian mainstream dailies and weeklies, such as Népszabadság and Élet és Irodalom. Gerlach and Aly’s approach, furthermore, could be usefully compared to those used by some of the most promising young Hungarian historians of the Holocaust of the time (who now belong to the middle generation), such as Gábor Kádár, Zoltán Vági, and Krisztián Ungváry.43

Tellingly, social policy expert Dorottya Szikra reviewed Kádár and Vági’s book on the economic annihilation of Hungarian Jews alongside the Hungarian translation of Das letzte Kapitel (the two were published at almost exactly the same time), lauding them as milestones in the secondary literature which mark the start of a new epoch in the study of “social policy.”44 As Szikra maintained, such innovative works explore the links between questions of foreign and domestic policy as well as sociological and political economic factors, on the one hand, and racial policy and persecution, on the other, to reveal the dark side of modern social policy.45 At the same time, Szikra contrasted the works of the two author duos by highlighting that Gerlach and Aly remained focused on states and their international relations, whereas Kádár and Vági also devoted attention to the actual mechanisms of expropriation and violence on the local-societal level.46

This important difference was arguably the key factor behind the criticism leveled against Das letzte Kapitel by Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági in their review, entitled “‘Racionális’ népirtás Magyarországon” (“Rational” Genocide in Hungary).47 Kádár and Vági praised Das letzte Kapitel for its presentation of the Holocaust as a complex series of events and for its elaboration of a multicausal explanatory scheme. They categorized the book as a post-functionalist synthesis, which asserted the primacy of pragmatic considerations but integrated elements of both the functionalist and the intentionalist schools of interpretation. Kádár and Vági by and large agreed with Aly and Gerlach that the plan and the implementation of the Holocaust in Hungary were generated, above all, by unsolved problems related to the economy and financing of the Third Reich and a looming crisis in supplying German society. At the same time, a key aim of their review was to offer a critical assessment of Gerlach and Aly’s conception of German and Hungarian intentions and their depiction of the steps taken by the two sides to acquire the wealth of Hungarian Jews. Drawing on their own research, Kádár and Vági concluded that the persuasive power of the book was weakened by significant interpretative mistakes. In other words, they maintained that the approach was persuasive, but the authors’ specific interpretations were less convincing.

Kádár and Vági claimed that there was a tremendous gap between plans and their actual implementation, and they contended that by failing to address or explain this gap, Gerlach and Aly had not succeeding at grasping the practical mechanisms of expropriation.48 As specific agencies, such as ministries and local administrations, were ultimately responsible for the exact manner of implementation, cases of embezzlement and theft proliferated, enabling significant segments of Hungarian society to profit from robbing the persecuted without the Hungarian government managing to inject the decisive part of so-called “Jewish wealth” into the “Hungarian” economy or channel it into the state budget.49 Moreover, Kádár and Vági challenged Aly and Gerlach’s contention that the occupying German forces had remained largely uninvolved in this dimension of the genocidal process: instead of a neat division of labor as postulated by them, the Germans’ actions to acquire “Jewish wealth” in Hungary led to numerous conflicts and raised serious tensions between them and their local partners, according to Kádár and Vági.

Beyond such criticisms of a more empirical bent, Kádár and Vági also complained that Gerlach and Aly had interpreted the events through somewhat narrowly defined concepts of rationality and irrationality. As the reviewers pointed out, “Christian Hungarians” may have aimed to make economic gains, but the mass deportations in fact significantly damaged the Hungarian economy and disrupted public supply. As these aspects were neglected in their book, the German authors did not realize or address the fact that the deportation of hundreds of thousands caused a decline in production and had a deleterious effect also on the economic situation of “non-Jews” in Hungary.

Beyond Kádár and Vági’s review of the German original of Das letzte Kapitel in Buksz, the leading Hungarian-language journal devoted to scholarly reviews, Gerlach and Aly’s key theses were also scrutinized by László Karsai, one of the doyens of Hungarian Holocaust historiography.50 If “‘Racionális’ népirtás Magyarországon” was penned by scholars explicitly sympathetic to Gerlach and Aly’s post-functionalist agenda even if they also questioned the more specific interpretations in their book, Karsai proved much more critically disposed: he essentially argued that Gerlach and Aly’s ambition of reinterpreting the Holocaust in Hungary failed to yield convincing results.51 In his “A holokauszt utolsó fejezete” (The last chapter of the Holocaust), Karsai explained that the two key novelties of the book were, first, its arguments that the Sztójay government played the role of initiator and actively shaped the implementation of the Holocaust and, second, that the stolen wealth of Hungarian Jews significantly contributed to financing the war economy and stabilizing the quality of life for the rest of the population.

Karsai agreed with Gerlach and Aly that the Germans may not have arrived with a detailed plan of deportation in March 1944, but he emphasized that it must have seemed unnecessary to them to prepare such an elaborate blueprint in writing. In other words, the lack of evidence regarding detailed German planning did not imply that the Germans had not been preparing to murder as many Hungarian Jews as they possibly could. Karsai thereby contested the claim that ideological factors had played only secondary roles in the genocide, and he made considerable efforts to demonstrate that a comprehensive plan of deportation was formulated early on during the German occupation. In his assessment, the fact that the Germans and Hungarians responsible for deporting Hungarian Jews created six zones of deportation before the end of April 1944 contradicts Gerlach and Aly’s conception of the three main stages of interactive decision making.52 Moreover, like Kádár and Vági, Karsai emphasized that registering, storing, and “redistributing” so-called “Jewish wealth” in an orderly manner proved beyond the capacity of Hungarian authorities, and that Das letzte Kapitel failed to survey Holocaust-related costs incurred by the authorities to arrive at a more precise balance sheet.53

Karsai concluded that the explanation according to which the Hungarian authorities practically forced the deportation of the large majority of Hungarian Jews on the Nazi Germans amounted to no more than “baseless speculation” and “a harsh accusation.” In short, the primarily intentionalist interpretation that Karsai reiterated went hand in hand with his suggestion of the clear primacy of German responsibility, whereas Kádár and Vági’s greater appreciation for the (post-)functionalist position also implied more ready acceptance of the Hungarian side’s grave culpability.

It is worth comparing these critical Hungarian-language assessments with the reception of Das letzte Kapitel in German. Frank Golczewski, German and Eastern Europe expert and professor at the University of Hamburg, thought the book offered a radical reinterpretation that presented the Hungarian Shoah as an act “largely justified and implemented” by Hungarians save for the actual acts of murder.54 Intriguingly, Golczewski asked whether access to further sources in Hungarian would have made Gerlach and Aly reconsider some of their conclusions, claiming that this was “difficult to judge,” but then adding that “this might not be the case to a large extent.”55 Thomas Sandkühler, a noted expert on the Holocaust in East Galicia and, as of 2009, professor for Geschichtsdidaktik at Humboldt University in Berlin, similarly explained that Gerlach and Aly’s book revealed a division of labor between Hungarians and Germans which was used due to partly overlapping and partly divergent motives when short-term German calculations met longer-term Hungarian plans.56 Sandkühler also thought that one of the main findings of the book was how eagerly Hungarians participated in the genocide, and he expressed no reservations or qualifications concerning this conclusion. His only notable criticism concerned Gerlach and Aly’s strong emphasis on “reformist social policy.” Sandkühler thought that, in this respect, the authors effectively reproduced contemporary Nazi propaganda slogans.

Unlike his aforementioned colleagues, Jürgen Zarusky, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History, formulated more encompassing criticisms of Das letzte Kapitel. Zarusky shared the view that anti-Semitic obsessions alone could not account for the Holocaust and questions regarding the economic rationality of the genocide deserved to be raised.57 However, he took serious issue with Gerlach and Aly, claiming that the connections on which their book was meant to focus were not properly illuminated: they did not really manage to explain the relationships between various causes and impacts, Zarusky asserted, nor did they explain which motives were of decisive importance for different actors. Zarusky’s review ultimately argued that “economic rationalizations” played a limited role in Nazi policy making towards the end of the war, and there could be talk neither of the primacy of production logics over anti-Semitic considerations nor of the efficient use of the labor force.

What all the aforementioned German reviews have in common is that none of their authors could claim research expertise regarding the history of the Holocaust in Hungary.58 The criticisms they offered thus tended to be milder and diverged from the detailed empirical rebuttals made by Kádár and Vági or Karsai by focusing more on questions of theory and overall interpretation. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the general assessments of Aly and Gerlach’s approach and explanations ranged from positive to negative in both countries.

As Regina Fritz recently remarked, the history of fascism and that of the Arrow Cross movement, party, and regime in particular have long remained rather poorly researched within Hungarian historiography, despite or perhaps because of all the political discourses surrounding them.59 It may be true that around the time of Fritz’s writing in 2013, two new Hungarian-language monographs were just about to be published that arguably substantially improved the situation.60 Until then, however, Margit Szöllösi-Janze’s Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn. Historischer Kontext, Entwicklung und Herrschaft (The Arrow Cross movement in Hungary. Historical context, development and rule) could be considered the only major work of history on the Arrow Cross in any language, other than Éva Teleki’s somewhat dated work from the 1970s.61 Based on the author’s dissertation from 1986 and awarded the prize of the German Society for Southeast European Studies (Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft) in 1987, Szöllösi-Janze’s Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn was eventually published in 1989.

More specifically, Szöllösi-Janze’s book offers an original exploration of German, British, and American archival materials as well as documents drawn up or used by key Arrow Cross functionaries, while also drawing on the secondary literature in German and Hungarian. The book devotes some eighty pages to describing the socioeconomic and political scene of interwar Hungary to illuminate the broader context of the emergence of the Arrow Cross. Szöllösi-Janze subsequently provides more focused analyses of the sudden rise, social support, changing fortunes, and major failures of the Arrow Cross movement between 1935 and 1945.62

As Thomas Schlemmer and Hans Woller argue in their overview of the evolution of fascist studies, Szöllösi-Janze’s book might be viewed as part of a third wave of research into fascism when researchers began to explore indigenous movements outside the “core Axis states” of Italy and Germany in greater depth.63 However, as Schlemmer and Woller highlight, such important additions to the study of fascism could count on significantly less public interest in West Germany than those that were originally published during the great wave of the 1960s and 1970s.64 At the same time, the German reception of Szöllösi-Janze’s work was generally positive, as illustrated by Hungarologist Holger Fischer’s review, which praised Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn as an impressively documented and logically structured work “entirely worthy” of the prize it had been awarded.65 Gyula Borbándi, one of the leading personalities of the Hungarian émigré intellectual scene in Germany, also praised the work as “the most detailed” and “best documented” one on its topic which thus filled a significant gap in the scholarly literature.66 Borbándi’s review highlighted two original aspects of Szöllösi-Janze’s approach in particular, namely its detailed analysis of the social bases of the Arrow Cross and its descriptive-analytical tone, i.e. an absence of evaluative statements (with which Borbándi did not take issue).67

Szöllösi-Janze had a familiar connection to her subject which could potentially have made the international reception of the monograph’s neutral approach and tone more polemically charged (even if this family relationship was not explicitly highlighted in the scholarly discussions). Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, a leading expert on Central and Eastern European fascism at the time, for instance, found Margit Szöllösi-Janze’s Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn to be an “impressive study.”68 At the same time, Nagy-Talavera not only pointed to the special and rather unfortunate timing of Szöllösi-Janze’s research during the last phase of the Cold War and communist rule, i.e. shortly before much sensitive archival material would have become available. As a witness to the events depicted in the book, he was also convinced that, no matter how commendable Szöllösi-Janze’s detachment may have seemed from a professional point of view, she had thereby unduly neglected crucial aspects of the period.

Leading British Habsburg historian R. J. W. Evans thought that, beyond providing a reliable but not terribly innovative description of the advances of fascist organizations and of the supporters and breakthrough of the Arrow Cross in the Hungary in the 1930s, Szöllösi-Janze managed to break new ground in two areas in particular: by providing a balanced appraisal of the Arrow Cross worldview and by examining the party’s attempts to implement its policy ideas.69 However, like Nagy-Talavera, R. J. W. Evans found Szöllösi-Janze’s dispassionate approach insufficient to convey a real sense of key personalities and a convincing account of the horrible drama they unleashed. It might be worth noting that, rather differently from the recognized country and regional experts Nagy-Talavera and Evans, German-British historian Francis L. Carsten praised Szöllösi-Janze’s book for providing a mass of original detail and a thorough description of Arrow Cross rule in 1944–45, and his only major criticism related to what he saw as Szöllösi-Janze’s insufficient explanation of the temporary decline of the Arrow Cross during the years of World War II, when Germany still appeared victorious.70

Rolf Fischer’s Entwicklungsstufen des Antisemitismus in Ungarn 1867-1939, the third major German-language monograph on Hungary with a bearing on the history of the Holocaust, was published in 1988 and could thus be seen as part of the same broader wave of interest in the persecution and extermination of European Jewry observable after the mid-1980s.71 Like Szöllösi-Janze’s history of the Arrow Cross, Rolf Fischer’s book received some international attention. Soon after its release, Entwicklungsstufen des Antisemitismus in Ungarn 1867–1939 was reviewed by both István Deák and Hillel Kieval, two eminent authorities on Habsburg and post-Habsburg Jewish history in the United States.72 The contemporaneous international reception of this book in fact seemed less critical than that of Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn, though its reviewers did not appear convinced of the true originality of Fischer’s approach or findings.

István Deák thought Fischer’s key thesis concerned the abrupt end of a Hungarian-Jewish symbiosis in 1918–19, which inaugurated a process of officially supported dissimilation and supposedly culminated in the Holocaust of Hungarian Jews. Deák called Rolf Fischer’s book a “well-documented study,” but he also had several critical remarks. He thought Fischer did not quite give an adequate impression of the phenomenal rise of Hungarian Jewry under the Dual Monarchy, and he noted that some of the crucial roots of a Hungarian revolt against capitalism, liberalism, and modernity lay in the period before 1914.73 Moreover, Deák saw Fischer’s work as unduly one-sided in some of its critical insights: he thought Fischer overemphasized the anti-Semitic thrust of right-wing counter-revolutionary violence in 1919 without illuminating the larger context. Deák also questioned what he saw as Fischer’s construction of a straight path leading from Horthy-era anti-Semitism starting in 1919 to the deportation and murder of Hungarian Jewry’s large majority in 1941–45.74

Hillel Kieval also argued that the narrative of Entwicklungsstufen des Antisemitismus in Ungarn 1867–1939 revolved around the decisive turn when Hungary pivoted away from being an inclusive country, in which a “liberal national consensus” reigned, to one that committed itself to a “Christian-nationalist” course and threatened to exclude its Jews, irrespective of their levels of assimilation.75 As Kieval is primarily an expert on Jewish history in the Czech lands, it should perhaps come as no surprise that he commented on specifically Hungarian matters somewhat less elaborately than Deák. Nonetheless, he went on to offer more frontal criticisms of Fischer’s book, complaining about its lack of originality, even predictability, and rather narrow source base. Again in contrast to Deák, Kieval assessed the overall interpretation of the book as laudably balanced: he thought Fischer focused on the internal dynamics of Hungarian anti-Semitism while also emphasizing what he called “partial pressure” from Nazi Germany and the impetus deriving from the Nazi Anschluss of Austria and the Munich accords of 1938.76

Even so, the main impression one gains from the reception of Fischer’s Entwicklungsstufen des Antisemitismus in Ungarn 1867–1939 is that, unlike the two monographs discussed above, this solid work of scholarship fell short of exerting a significant impact on wider discussions of its topic. Whereas the historiography of the Holocaust in Hungary and the Arrow Cross movement would be significantly poorer without Das letzte Kapitel and Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn (their debatable aspects notwithstanding), the interpretations of the history of Hungarian anti-Semitism are likely to have proceeded along rather similar lines without its most important German-language exploration to date.


In conclusion, our assessment of the contribution of German historiography to the study of the Holocaust in Hungary has to be rather mixed. On the one hand, for partly understandable reasons, this major chapter of the Europe-wide genocide has not emerged as an independent preoccupation among German historians. The Holocaust in Hungary and adjacent topics, such as the history of Hungarian anti-Semitism or the Arrow Cross, have only really been “discovered” in German historiography as a consequence of a larger temporal and geographical shift of focus which began around the mid-1980s. However, even today, there are no experts employed at German universities or research institutions whose primary research focus concerns the Holocaust in Hungary. Moreover, there has been only limited direct cooperation among researchers of the Holocaust in Germany and Hungary, and cross-fertilization among their scholarly works has also remained surprisingly modest.

On the other hand, for a historiography that lacks specialists and seems interested in the Holocaust in Hungary only as part of larger debates on the genesis of the Holocaust and questions of collaboration and cooperation in its implementation, German historiography has produced two path-breaking and rather widely received monographs. Margit Szöllösi-Janze’s Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn from 1989 can be considered one of the major works on the history of the Arrow Cross in any language. Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly’s towering Das letzte Kapitel from 2002 has exerted an even greater impact both internationally and within Hungary. Even if some of its specific arguments have been contested by leading local historians of the Holocaust, Gerlach and Aly’s book, published at the beginning of the twenty-first century, succeeded for the first time in making the case of Hungary a reference point in broader discussions on the Holocaust among German scholars.

Based on ongoing attempts to Europeanize the historiography of the Holocaust as well as current discussions regarding the latest phases of the war in 1944–45,77 one might reasonably expect growing interest in the Holocaust in Hungary. If so, a puzzling paradox of postwar German approaches to the Holocaust could finally be overcome: even though postwar German discussions have recurrently used the name Auschwitz as a metonym for the German-led destruction of European Jewry, German scholarship has not yet devoted earnest attention to the single largest group of victims of this most infamous camp complex, Jews from Hungary.


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Geissbühler, Simon. Blutiger Juli: Rumäniens Vernichtungskrieg und der vergessene Massenmord an den Juden 1941. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag, 2013.

Gerlach, Christian. Krieg, Ernährung, Völkermord: Forschungen zur deutschen Vernichtungspolitik im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1998.

Gerlach, Christian. “The Wannsee Conference, the Fate of German Jews, and Hitler’s Decision in Principle to Exterminate All European Jews.” The Journal of Modern History 70 (1998): 4, 759–812.

Gerlach, Christian. Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrussland 1941 bis 1944. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999.

Gerlach, Christian. Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Gerlach, Christian. “A tömeges erőszak nemcsak politikatörténet, hanem társadalomtörténet is” [Mass violence is not just political history, but also social history]. 2000, January 2014, 3–6.

Gerlach, Christian, and Aly Götz. Das letzte Kapitel: Realpolitik, Ideologie und der Mord an den ungarischen Juden 1944/45. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2002.

Geyer, Michael, and Sheila Fitzpatrick, eds. Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Glass, Hildrun. Deutschland und die Verfolgung der Juden im rumänischen Machtbereich 1940–1944. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2014.

Golczewski, Frank. “Das letzte Kapitel.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 27, 2002.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Helyünk a holokauszt történetírásában” [Our place in the writing of the history of the Holocaust]. Kommentár, no. 3 (2008): 13–23.

Heinen, Armin. Die Legion “Erzengel Michael” in Rumänien: Soziale Bewegung und politische Organisation. Ein Beitrag zum Problem des internationalen Faschismus. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1986.

Heinen, Armin. Rumänien, der Holocaust und die Logik der Gewalt. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2007.

Herbert, Ulrich. Best: Biographische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft 1903–1989. Bonn: Dietz, 1996.

Herbert, Ulrich. “Holocaust-Forschung in Deutschland: Geschichte und Perspektiven einer schwierigen Disziplin.” In Der Holocaust: Ergebnisse und neue Fragen der Forschung, edited by Frank Bajohr, and Andrea Löw, 31–81. Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer Verlag, 2015.

Hördler, Stefan. Ordnung und Inferno: Das KZ-System im letzten Kriegsjahr. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2015.

Iordachi, Constantin, ed. Comparative Fascist Studies: New Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2009.

Jockusch, Laura. Collect and Record! Jewish Historical Documentation in Early Postwar Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Kádár, Gábor, and Zoltán Vági. “‘Racionális’ népirtás Magyarországon” [“Rational” genocide in Hungary]. Buksz, no. 3 (2003): 219–27.

Kádár, Gábor, and Zoltán Vági. Hullarablás: A magyar zsidók gazdasági megsemmisítése [Body-snatching: The economic annihilation of the Hungarian Jews]. Budapest: Jaffa, 2005.

Kádár, Gábor, and Zoltán Vági. A végső döntés: Berlin, Budapest, Birkenau 1944 [The final decision: Berlin, Budapest, Birkenau 1944]. Budapest: Jaffa, 2013.

Kádár, Gábor, László Csősz, and Zoltán Vági. The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2013.

Karsai, László. “A holokauszt utolsó fejezete” [The last chapter of the Holocaust]. Beszélő, no. 10 (2005): 74–91.

Kempter, Klaus. Joseph Wulf: Ein Historikerschicksal in Deutschland. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. 4th ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Kershaw, Ian. The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944–45. London: Allen Lane, 2011.

Kieval, Hillel. “Rolf Fischer, Entwicklungsstufen des Antisemitismus in Ungarn 1867–1939.” The American Historical Review 96 (1991): 1236–37. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/96.4.1236

Klimó, Árpád von. “Der ungarische Judenmord – eine deutsche Geschichte?” Frankfurter Rundschau, March 20, 2002.

Kolnai, Aurel. The War Against the West. New York: The Viking Press, 1938.

Korb, Alexander. Im Schatten des Weltkriegs: Massengewalt der Ustaša gegen Serben, Juden und Roma in Kroatien 1941–1945. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2013.

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Kubinszky, Judit. Politikai antiszemitizmus Magyarországon 1875–1890 [Political antisemitism in Hungary: 1875–1890]. Budapest: Kossuth, 1976.

Lackó, Miklós. Nyilasok, nemzetiszocialisták, 1935–1944 [Members of the Arrow Cross and National Socialists: 1935–1944]. Budapest: Kossuth, 1966.

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Ormos, Mária. Nácizmus – fasizmus [Nazism – fascism]. Budapest: Magvető, 1987.

Paksa, Rudolf. Magyar nemzetiszocialisták – az 1930-as évek új szélsőjobboldali mozgalma, pártjai, politikusai, sajtója [Hungarian National Socialists – The new extreme right-wing movement, parties, politicians, and press of the 1930s]. Budapest: Osiris, 2013.

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Szöllösi-Janze, Margit. Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn: Historischer Kontext, Entwicklung und Herrschaft. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1989.

Teleki, Éva. Nyilas uralom Magyarországon [Arrow Cross rule in Hungary]. Budapest: Kossuth, 1974.

Tönsmeyer, Tatjana. Das Dritte Reich und die Slowakei 1939–1945. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag, 2003.

Ungváry, Krisztián. A Horthy-rendszer mérlege: Diszkrimináció, szociálpolitika és antiszemitizmus Magyarországon [The Horthy System on the scales: Discrimination, social policy, and antisemitism in Hungary]. Pécs: Jelenkor, 2012.

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Yablonka, Hanna. The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann. New York: Schocken, 2004.

Zarusky, Jürgen “Lag dem nationalsozialistischen Judenmord in Ungarn wirtschaftliches Kalkül zugrunde? Zum Buch von Christian Gerlach / Götz Aly: Das letzte Kapitel. Der Mord an den ungarischen Juden.” Forum für osteuropäische Ideen- und Zeitgeschichte 8 (2004): 1, 295–301.

Zimmermann, Susan. “Christian Gerlach-Götz Aly: Az utolsó fejezet. Az európai történelem része – egy úttörő könyv a magyar zsidó holokausztról” [Christian Gerlach-Götz Aly: The Last Chapter. A part of European history – A pathbreaking book on the Hungarian Jewish Holocaust]. Eszmélet 16 (2004): 69–71.



1 Regina Fritz’s more recent monograph Nach Krieg und Judenmord on Hungarian history politics related to the Holocaust constitutes another seminal German-language contribution which analyzes its topic in greater detail than any of its Hungarian-language counterparts. See Fritz, Nach Krieg und Judenmord. As this paper was originally conceived and written as part of a Yad Vashem project entitled Trauma and Rehabilitation, where a separate paper was meant to tackle the case of Austria, Regina Fritz’s book, which was written by an Austrian scholar not based in Germany, shall not be discussed below. (I have reviewed the book in Hungarian in Korall, 53, 212–15.)

2 Gerlach and Götz, Das letzte Kapitel. The book has appeared in Hungarian translation as Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly, Az utolsó fejezet – a magyar zsidók legyilkolása, trans. by Gábor Kerényi (Budapest: Noran, 2005). More on its reception below.

3 Szöllösi-Janze, Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung.

4 Fischer, Entwicklungsstufen. The history of anti-Semitism may have received monographic treatment in Hungary in the 1970s, but the focus was on its early manifestations in modern times. See Kubinszky, Politikai antiszemitizmus Magyarországon.

5 Tellingly, only one edited volume devoted to the topic has been published in German: Mihok, Ungarn und der Holocaust. Based on a conference held at the Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung in October 2003, this rather brief volume included, with the expection of Wolfgang Benz’s “biographical notes” and editor Brigitte Mihok’s reflection on patterns of Hungarian remembrance, only scholars from outside Germany, most of them from Hungary. Beyond this volume, the German-language contributions of Franz Horváth on the Holoucast in Northern Transylvania merit mention. Revealingly, in important German-language volumes such as the pathbreaking Dimension des Völkermords, the chapter on Hungary was, exceptionally in the context of the volume, penned by László Varga, an author from the country in question. See Benz, Dimension des Völkermords. German historiography’s treatment of various Hungarian historical topics has been the subject of a valuable German-language collection by Márta Fata, Das Ungarnbild.

6 Zeitgeschichte was famously defined by Hans Rothfels, a major agent of the institutionalization of the field, as “the epoch of contemporaries and its scholarly study.” On Rothfels, see Eckel, Hans Rothfels. The officially anti-fascist communist state of East Germany may have heavily invested in acts of symbolic politics related to the Nazi past, including at major Nazi concentration camps within its territory such as Buchenwald, but it had not developed an internationally noted tradition of research into the history of the Holocaust and will therefore not be treated separately here.

7 The Institute, originally launched as the Deutsches Institut für Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Zeit (German Institute for the History of the National Socialist Time) in 1949, was renamed Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute of Contemporary History) in 1952. For a monograph focused on the activities of the institute in a critical manner, see Berg, Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker.

8 Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship.

9 Bajohr, “Elvont rendszerviták.”

10 On this, see Jockusch, Collect and Record!

11 Joseph Wulf, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, constituted a significant but only partial exception. As Klaus Kempter has shown in his detailed biography, Wulf could at times be rather visible and successful in the German public sphere, but he nevertheless remained on the margins of the German historical profession. Kempter, Joseph Wulf. On “Survivor Historians and the Holocaust” (with my contribution on Jenő Lévai), see the special issue (no. 1–2, 2015) of Holocaust Studies. A Journal of Culture and History edited by Boaz Cohen and Tom Lawson.

12 It is rather telling that within Germany, jurists had for decades been more actively engaged with the subject. On this, see Pohl, “A holokauszt, mint német és kelet-európai történelmi probléma.”

13 See Pendas, The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, and Yablonka, The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann.

14 As a major example, see Broszat et al., Anatomie des SS-Staates. The late 1970s also saw the release of a major monograph on the treatment of Soviet POWs: Streit, Keine Kameraden.

15 Rather characteristically, a major exception from the 1970s studying the Reinhardt murder facilities was based on documentation from German trials. See Rückerl, Nationalsozialistische. A first major German-language monograph on the Reinhard death camps was published no earlier than 2013. See Berger, Experten der Vernichtung.

16 The airing of the American series Holocaust on German television in 1979 brought the term Holocaust into widespread use in West Germany. The shock waves it sent indirectly also generated much new interest among researchers. For a transatlantic study on such matters, see Eder, Holocaust Angst.

17 Herbert, “Holocaust-Forschung in Deutschland,” 31–81.

18 Browning, Ordinary Men.

19 Innovative works on perpetrators include Herbert, Best. Biographische Studien and Wildt, Generation des Unbedingten.

20 See, for example, Löw, Juden im Getto, and Meyer, Tödliche Gratwanderung.

21 German historical studies of the Holocaust tend to be intimately connected to and are typically embedded in the study of Nazi Germany and World War II, even though several recent institutional changes, notably the creation of a department for Holocaust Studies at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich and the establishment of the first chair for Holocaust Studies in Frankfurt a.M., have pointed toward the emergence of a largely independent field. This, however, has not made Germany entirely comparable to the United States or Israel, where rather large and separate institutions and programs in Holocaust Studies have emerged, and have done so significantly earlier.

22 Such institutions include university departments, research centers, and memorial sites (Gedenkstätte). I ought to add that this decentralization does not mean that the level of institutionalization would be unsatisfactory. See Gerlach, “A tömeges erőszak nemcsak politikatörténet.”

23 See the discussion of this trend in Stone, Histories of the Holocaust.

24 To mention only some of the most important publications: Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde; Tönsmeyer, Das Dritte Reich und die Slowakei; Dieckmann, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik; Korb, Im Schatten des Weltkriegs. In more recent years, the case of Romania has been the subject of several important works: Heinen, Rumänien, der Holocaust; Geissbühler, Blutiger Juli; Glass, Deutschland und die Verfolgung. Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly’s Das letzte Kapitel can be usefully placed alongside these works.

25 For a major recent effort to compare beyond the totalitarian model, see Geyer and Fitzpatrick, Beyond Totalitarianism.

26 Such a transnational turn has been proposed in Patel, “In Search of a Second Historicization.” Comparative fascism studies have also been pursued outside Germany more than within. This was partly due to the rather prevalent thesis on the uniqueness and incomparability of the National Socialist regime and its crimes. On comparative studies, see Iordachi, Comparative Fascist Studies.

27 See Pohl, “A holokauszt mint német és kelet-európai történelmi probléma.”

28 For an elaboration of this point, see my article, “The Radicalization of Hungarian anti-Semitism.”

29 This statement applies to Slovakia and Croatia as well, two countries that have often been conceived as mere “puppet states.” See especially Tönsmeyer, Das Dritte Reich und die Slowakei, and Korb, Im Schatten des Weltkriegs.

30 See, perhaps most characteristically, the recent monograph by Case, Between States which is admittedly not a German work of scholarship but reflects transnational approaches.

31 See chapter two of Kádár et al., The Holocaust in Hungary in particular.

32 By this time, Auschwitz-Birkenau had emerged not only as the main center of the Nazi concentration camp system but also as the main annihilation camp and central stage of the Holocaust. Now see Wachsmann, KL. A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.

33 See, among many other works, Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution. See also Gerlach, “The Wannsee Conference.”

34 See Kershaw, The End. Hitler’s Germany. On the concentration camps in the last year of the war and thus with special relevance to the scholarly study of the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry, now see Hördler, Ordnung und Inferno. On the death marches (which were closely connected to the deportations from Hungary), see Blatman, The Death Marches.

35 See Braham, The Politics of Genocide.

36 The years later saw the release of Kádár et al., The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide.

37 Cole, “Prologue.”

38 Ibid., 3.

39 See Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies; Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde; Gerlach, Krieg, Ernährung, Völkermord; Aly and Heim, Vordenker der Vernichtung; Aly, “Endlösung”; Aly, Hitlers Volksstaat; Aly, Die Belasteten; Aly, Europa gegen die Juden. Alongside Aly’s coauthored book on the case of Hungary, another three of Götz Aly’s books have also been translated into Hungarian.

40 See, in particular, Aly and Heim, Vordenker der Vernichtung, Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde.

41 Petersen, “Rezension von: Christian Gerlach / Götz Aly: Das letzte Kapitel.”

42 Gerlach and Aly, Az utolsó fejezet.

43 By the latter, see especially Ungváry, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege, which significantly draws on Götz Aly’s pathbreaking explorations.

44 Szikra, “Új ablak a magyar szociális ellátások történetére,” 110; Kádár and Vági, Hullarablás.

45 More specifically, Szikra recommended the study of the two sides of social redistribution (the “contributors” and the “recipients”), with particular attention to “racial” distinctions.

46 Ibid., 113.

47 Kádár and Vági, “‘Racionális’ népirtás Magyarországon.”

48 As they explained, the Hungarian government may have declared principles of redistribution, but it proved unable to develop comprehensive legal framework in 1944.

49 In other words, they claimed that the state-led campaign of robbing the dead had been executed much more efficiently than that of redistributing wealth.

50 Karsai, “A holokauszt utolsó fejezete.”

51 Rather characteristically for Karsai’s “rejectionist” take on the book, a section of his elaborate critique was entitled “A List of Mistakes.” The pages that followed were meant to demonstrate Karsai’s profound knowledge of key primary sources, sources he claimed Gerlach and Aly often misread.

52 It is worth noting that Kádár and Vági have released a volume on the stages of Hungarian-German interactive decision making in the spring of 1944 since. See Kádár and Vági, A végső döntés.

53 His line of reasoning was that the deported masses were simply too large, the time period too short, and the property left behind too enticing for thieves on the lower levels of power hierarchies, so the Hungarian state could not succeed in acquiring and putting to new use the otherwise notable wealth that the Holocaust might have generated.

54 Golczewski, “Das letzte Kapitel.”

55 Ibid.

56 Sandkühler, “Arbeitsteiliger Massenmord.”

57 Zarusky, “Lag dem nationalsozialistischen Judenmord.”

58 The only scholar with expertise in Hungarian history to have reviewed the book in German is Árpád von Klimó. However, Klimó is not a Holocaust researcher either. See von KIimó, “Der ungarische Judenmord.”

59 Fritz, “Zwischen Dokumentieren,” 30. As a significant exception, Regina Fritz could refer to Zoltán András Kovács’s study of the Interior Ministry of the Szálasi government. Kovács, A Szálasi-kormány belügyminisztériuma. Important Hungarian scholarship on fascism from earlier decades include works by Miklós Lackó and Mária Ormos. See Lackó, Nyilasok, nemzetiszocialisták, Ormos, Nácizmus – fasizmus. The prolific Ormos also published biographies of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

60 Paksa, Magyar nemzetiszocialisták, Paksy, Nyilas mozgalom Magyarországon. There are now also two Hungarian-language biographies of Ferenc Szálasi, one by Paksa and one by Karsai.

61 For Teleki’s earlier work in Hungarian, see Teleki, Nyilas uralom Magyarországon.

62 The years 1935 to 1944 receive slightly more attention than the months of Arrow Cross rule in late 1944 and early 1945 (180 as opposed to 150 pages).

63 See Schlemmer and Woller, “Politischer Deutungskampf,” 11. Die Pfeilkreuzlerbewegung in Ungarn could thus be seen as the Hungarian counterpart to Armin Heinen’s Die Legion “Erzengel Michael” in Rumänien. Soziale Bewegung und politische Organisation. Ein Beitrag zum Problem des internationalen Faschismus, a near contemporaneous German-language monograph on the Iron Guard. See Heinen, Die Legion.

64 See Schlemmer and Woller, “Politischer Deutungskampf,” 11.

65 Fischer, “Margit Szöllösi-Janze.”

66 Borbándi, “Margit Szöllösi-Janze.”

67 More specifically, Borbándi was unsatisfied with the categorization of certain Hungarian political forces, maintaining that Szöllösi-Janze’s characterization of Gömbös’ attempt as “fascism from above” was unconvincing. Indeed, this label struck him as a contradiction in terms.

68 Nagy-Talavera, “Margit Szöllösi-Janze,” 456–57.

69 Evans, “Margit Szöllösi-Janze,” 260–61.

70 See Carsten, “Margit Szöllösi-Janze,” 363–64. It might be worth adding that, despite such reservations from abroad regarding her award-winning dissertation and unlike Christian Gerlach (who has been appointed to a tenured position at the University of Bern in Switzerland) and Götz Aly (who has established himself as an extraordinarily successful independent historian in Germany), Margit Szöllösi-Janze, who has subsequently specialized in the history of science, became a professor first in Salzburg and then also in Germany, in Cologne and more recently in Munich. Her dissertation on the Arrow Cross may not have been a decisive reason behind these appointments, but it clearly has not constituted a hindrance either.

71 Herbert, “Holocaust-Forschung.”

72 Deák, “Rolf Fischer,” 712–13.

73 Ibid., 712.

74 Ibid., 713.

75 Kieval, “Rolf Fischer,” 1236–37.

76 Ibid., 1237.

77 See, for instance, Kershaw, The End; Hördler, Ordnung und Inferno; Blatman, The Death Marches.


Negotiating Widowhood and Female Agency in Seventeenth-Century Hungary

Gabriella Erdélyi
Research Centre for the Humanities
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 595-623 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.595

The case study focuses on the tactics of aristocratic women to negotiate their familial roles and identities primarily as wives and widows. By reading closely the rich family correspondence of the Várdai-Telegdi family in the first half of the seventeenth century and concentrating on the intensive negotiating period between getting widowed and remarrying the study argues that the role of the go-between and the marginal status of women in the patrilineal and patriarchal family created some space for them to maneuver. Moreover, the cultural context of female familial roles and ties (mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, half-sisters) was the female court, which created horizontal and intimate ties between women, which also empowered them.

Keywords: female agency, negotiating female roles, female courts, family network, half-sisters, mother-daughter relationship, emotional practices, letter exchange

My sweet beloved lady mother, I wish our Lord God had allowed me to write better news for your Grace, my beloved husband was summoned by our Lord God a week ago, leaving us, my poor […] child and me in my present condition [i.e. she was pregnant] rather lonely, I beg your Grace for the living God that your Grace would not leave me alone, but would instead visit me.1

In the first days of her widowhood, the 17-year old Krisztina Nyáry shared with her mother, Kata Várdai, her painful feeling of being an outsider in both of her families: after having lost her husband, she remained alone among her late husband’s kin, while she also had to request support from her mother, who lived far away from her. The present article looks at the ways in which early modern aristocratic women maneuvered in their intermediate position between their natal and marital families. How did they mediate as wives, and how did they use their roles as mediators for their self-fashioning and their individual purposes? How did they negotiate their liminal status as widows to gain support and reintegrate into shifting family networks? Like births and marriages, deaths were followed by an intensive negotiating process among family members (on which the letter cited above touches), resulting in the reconfiguration of the family network. Therefore, in this article I focus on these periods of intensive bargaining in the life-cycles of the families to which Krisztina belonged.2

The protagonist of the following case study will be Krisztina Nyáry (1604–41), whose life, however, was fairly exceptional. Following the untimely death of her first husband, Imre Thurzó (1598–1621), his relatives pushed her aside. She was not only denied to receive the right of tutorship of her two little daughters, but, with the explicit aim of ensuring that her daughters would be raised as Lutherans (Krisztina was Calvinist), their daily care and upbringing was also entrusted to their paternal grandmother.3 This was a fairly extraordinary turn of events, since in Hungary as well as elsewhere in Europe widowed mothers were considered legitimate and capable tutors of their half-orphaned children, who were seldom separated from their mothers, especially at such a tender age. Also, instead of widowed mothers, the remarried mothers tended to be stigmatized as “cruel” and divested of the right to serve as tutors.4

By looking closely at this exceptional case, I aim to better understand typical contemporary concepts and everyday practices within the family.5 I will draw on the argument that familial roles are cultural constructs and have culturally distinct dynamics. It has been repeatedly argued that the maternal role of early modern aristocratic women was overshadowed by their role as wives in the patriarchal family. In other words, husbands expected their wives less to perform their maternal duties and more to fulfil services in the interest of their new families acquired through marriage. In short, female identity (as opposed to male identity) was more decisively shaped by the social bond created through marriages than the blood tie of maternity.6 How did Krisztina Nyáry, widowed in pregnancy and with an eight-month-old baby, maneuver in the spaces and gaps created by the web of familial expectations and ties? Drawing on the letters exchanged among family members, I offer a portrait of her in her natal family fulfilling the role of adult daughter and sister and as daughter-in-law in her relationship with her mother-in-law, Erzsébet Czobor.7

In Krisztina’s natal family, the head of the family was Krisztina’s widowed mother, Kata Várdai (1570–1630). Kata Várdai had played this role since losing her second husband, Pál Nyáry, in1607. In the 1610s and 1620s, she lived together with her adult daughter from her first marriage, Anna Telegdi (1589–1635), in the old Várdai-family residence, the castle of Kisvárda in the eastern region of Habsburg Hungary, next to the Principality of Transylvania. Their unusual co-residence resulted from the fact that, in 1609, Kata Várdai had her 20-year-old daughter Anna marry her stepbrother, István Nyáry, who was the son of Kata’s second husband, Pál Nyáry. The stepsibling match, as usual, promoted both the economic and emotional integration of the stepfamily.8 The step-siblings, Anna and István, were close to each other in age, and as they had been living together as part of the same household for a decade, they knew each other well. The newly married couple found it entirely natural to remain in “beautiful Várda,” in spite of the fact that they had numerous estates to choose from.9 Thus, Anna’s half-sister Krisztina, who was five years old at the time, got a 19-year-old surrogate mother in the person of her half-sister and a 24-year-old surrogate father in her brother-in-law. This cohabitation of the half-sisters came to an end in 1618, when Krisztina left Kisvárda. Kata Várdai, always keeping a sharp eye out for a promising match for her daughter, managed to catch the attention of Imre Thurzó, the talented and immensely wealthy son of the late palatine. In the autumn of 1617, Imre and Krisztina, who was only 13 years old at the time, were engaged, and one year later, they were married.10 As custom dictated, Krisztina moved in with her husband’s family in Biccse (today Bytča, Slovakia), which lay in the western region of Habsburg Hungary.

The asymmetry in the position of the half-sisters provides a good opportunity for a variety of observations. In the case of Anna, the fact that her natal and marital families merged and she remained in her natal home as a married woman resulted in an exceptionally close and intimate but also increasingly hierarchical mother-daughter relationship, on which I have written in detail in another study.11 Krisztina, in contrast, played the common mediating role of married women between their natal and marital families. The dual use of names is one of the indications of the double identities of wives.12 Accordingly, the newlywed Krisztina signed her letters Niari Christina, while others referred to her as “my lady Mrs. Thurzó.” How much influence and freedom of movement did Krisztina have in the court of the Thurzó family, and how did she manage to maneuver and negotiate this space between two dominant mother figures, Kata Várdai and her mother-in-law, Erzsébet Czobor? It seems reasonable to surmise that the role of the go-between and the marginal status of women in the patrilineal family created some space for them to maneuver. Below, I examine the tactics used by the extremely young widow Krisztina, who has been depicted by historians as simple-minded,13 when she mediated between the two very dominant mother figures governing the two families.

The relationship of the half-sisters was asymmetrical not only in terms of their age (Anna was 14 years older than Krisztina), but also with regard to social rank and wealth due to the differences of their paternal and marital families. Historians tend to assume that differences and hierarchies between sisters and brothers, which were typical in patriarchal families at the time, led to conflicts and rivalries.14 We will thus observe whether and how, instead of or alongside the love and solidarity one would expect between sisters and half-sisters, rivalry and negative emotions found expression. It becomes clear from the family correspondence that the cultural backdrop of the mother-daughter, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, and sister relationship was the female aristocratic court in more general terms, the female domestic community. How did these alternative female friendship and kinship ties influence women’s roles and identities as wives, widows, mothers, and daughters-in-law in the patriarchal family?


Between “Two Mothers”

When Krisztina suddenly found herself with “two mothers,” the mother-daughter relationship became a triangle. In this triangle, Erzsébet Czobor also corresponded with Kata Várdai, whom she informed about her daughter’s pregnancy:

My loving daughter-in-law and my sweet little grandchild and maiden daughter are in good health […]. I would also like to let you know that on Michaelmas my loving daughter-in-law learned of the gift bestowed by God, whom let his holy majesty allow her to bear in peace joy and bring happily into this world and with your graces reach this time in good health.15

Krisztina found herself in the role of mediator between the two mothers. She delivered greetings and letters from the one to the other. As she wrote in one letter, “My dear heart, My Lady Mother, I have given the letter which your grace wrote to my Lady her Greatness.”16 In other words, Kata Várdai put the letter she had written to Erzsébet Czobor in with the letters she had written to her daughter, and Krisztina passed this letter on to her mother-in-law. Furthermore, Krisztina knew of the letters written by her mother-in-law to her mother, and she adjusted her own letters accordingly, both from the perspective of timing17 and from the perspective of their content: “I know that My Lady her Greatness wrote of our news.”18 And as she was a member of the women’s court of Biccse, she had to adapt in many ways to this life and, first and foremost, to the head of the court, her mother-in-law. On one occasion, she felt obliged to offer an explanation as to why she had not written for two weeks:

I was given four letters from My heart, my Lady Mother to which I could not reply, I beg your grace to forgive me for not having replied, because My Lady her Greatness and my husband his grace were undergoing purgations, and I had to busy myself with them, and this is why I could find no time to write to your Grace.19


Thus, Krisztina did not maintain an independent correspondence with her mother. She did not have anyone to deliver letters on her behalf, but rather wrote when the court messenger traveled to her mother’s court. Her letters concerned news of the events which took place in the women’s court of Biccse, including news of visitors, illnesses, weddings, and funerals. This kind of collective character of her letters is particularly remarkable: indeed, instead of a letter exchange between two individuals, the female court community of Biccse corresponds with that of Várda.20 It is common knowledge that early modern letter-writing (the writing, circulation, and reading of letters) was a collective social practice.21

It is of particular interest in this case that, beyond the family network, the female court also functioned as an “epistolary community.”22 At the beginning of her letters, Krisztina often addressed her half-sister and her mother, and at the end she sent her greetings,23 and she also passed on the oral greetings from her mother-in-law, her unmarried sisters-in-law (the “misses” who were still living at home), her married sisters-in-law, who were visiting their mother,24 as well as other female retainers such as the nurses and wet-nurses, and the noble maidens (“young ladies”): “My dear, my Lady Mother, Lady Erdődi is here,25 and Lady Vízkelety26 arrived yesterday, they offer their services to your grace. Similarly, the three maidens27 offer their services with great love.”28

Krisztina brought the so-called “old woman” (Lady Bogáti), the head of her court, from Várda with herself, so she repeatedly asked her mother to arrange for payment of her salary: “I do now know where the payment for my old woman will come from, as here in the upper regions there are other customs, they say, and they do not want to pay her, but rather my sweet lady mother, your grace agreed with her about her payment, so I ask your grace that your grace not leave the poor thing on her own.”29 She also asked her to send news of her children, “for she longs for her children so sadly, the poor thing.”30 As was characteristic of her, Kata Várdai entrusted her younger daughter Krisztina’s request to her elder daughter, Anna, and Anna turned to her cousin, Erzsébet Szokoly, who took care of the children’s placement: “Your grace should bring the sons of the poor Lady Bogáti with you […] my lady fears for their poor mother that she will grow sad, thus your grace, my sweet loving lady should act the way that it be avoided, and Lady Bogáti may serve with good heart around my sweet sister.”31 By the time they had come to an agreement, the “old woman” had returned to her children: “My heart, my Lady Mother, with regards to the affairs of the old woman, there is one who was brought from Léva who twirls around me quite well, but Lady Bogáti has left me, she by no means remained with us. I serve your grace’s good will, but it is already done.”32 With this, the ties which bound Krisztina to Várda and her mother were further loosened, and the ties which bound her to her new home, her new “mother,” and the women’s court of Biccse were tightened, and we are offered glimpses into the functioning of the network of pragmatic relationships among these women.

With her advantageous marriage Krisztina had become the wife of a count, and and thus had risen from the ranks of the barons to the ranks of the counts.33 This had changed her position in her natal family, and this is palpable in the communication between Krisztina and her mother. For example, as opposed to her elder sister, she does not hesitate to make frequent requests to her mother, which indicates a shift towards a more equal relationship with her mother.

Some of her letters to her mother were not written in her hand. Rather, she used the services of a scribe, which was another act with which she negotiated her subordination as a daughter.34 She anticipated that this act would be met with rebuke: “My sweet loving soul, my lady mother, forgive me, your grace, that I did not write your grace with my own hand, I could not write with my own hand, but after this I shall.”35 Beyond the rhetoric of daughterly subordination and obedience, her use of emotional language is remarkable, as it mirrors the emotional language of her mother and thus again positions her vis-à-vis her mother on more equal terms. The newlywed young wife shared her feelings of sadness with her mother in the following words: “Even if I had no other grief, I would still lament that your grace is far from me, my sweet lord is in the camp, he writes nothing to us, our only affair is the many thoughts day and night.”36 Krisztina wrote many times of the abandonment she suffered as a member of her husband’s family, and she expressed her longing for her mother’s love many times:

My sweet heart, my Lady Mother, I understand from your grace’s letter that I wrote that I am of heavy heart in my sweet Husband’s absence, were I closer to your grace, your grace would take me to her, and certainly I would have no grief were I with your grace. Your grace also wrote that your grace can show no motherly love to me, my dear heart, My Lady Mother, I believed that your grace wished me well, I have no doubt.37

The way she shares her feelings suggests that mother and daughter had a confidential relationship, and it also seems expressive of a desire to maintain an emotional bond that would bridge the distance between them: “My loving heart, my Lady Mother, I also understand from your grace’s letter that your grace is glad to hear of my health, even if I am so far away, I believed this, even if your grace does not write it to me.”38 In other words, she sensed her mother’s love for her even in the absence of words.

Krisztina’s sense of alienation in her husband’s family’s court was somewhat eased by her close ties to some of the members of the female court. She cherished a close friendship with her maiden sister-in-law, Katica Thurzó. This friendship must have inspired the rare comic tone of one of her letters, in which she used playful irony deriving from overstatement: “My dear Katica Thurzó offers her loyal, perfect, true, humble, and lifelong services to your Grace as her beloved, kind, and above all beautiful lady and sister. She asks your Grace to keep her among all your Grace’s servants as the smallest dishwashing maidservant.”39 This letter suggests that these domestic female alternative kinship and friendship ties, including the bonds between sisters and sisters-in-law, may have made the marginal status they had in the patriarchal family more endurable for women.

Krisztina had to ask her mother, who lived a great distance from her, to send her a prayer-book for her comfort in her time of mourning, since she could not turn to her mother-in-law with her emotional, spiritual, and moral needs, as her mother-in-law did not strive to play the maternal role in emotional terms: “My dear heart, my lady mother, I ask your Grace to send me a prayer-book, a Hungarian one, I will return it to your Grace as my beloved lady mother, since the one I brought with myself, while I was lying [when she was confined to bed before giving birth] has been lost, I could never find it.”40 István Nyáry, Krisztina’s half-brother and brother-in-law, escorted the mourning mother and the “body of the poor lord” from the court of Biccse to Zsolnalitva, the place of the burial. Although he wanted to calm his anxious wife (Anna, Krisztina’s half-sister) by reassuring her that Krisztina was being shown due attention by her marital relations, his words seem to suggest, rather, the very uncertain place Krisztina had in her late husband’s family: “Thank God my lady sister [Krisztina] is moderately well in her bitter condition due to the fact that the Old Lady her Grace [Krisztina’s mother-in-law] avoids crying in front of her, since my Lady Sister is in a heavy condition [she is pregnant] and there is a great hope that Lord God will bless her Grace with a boy.”41

Following the death of her only son, the most pressing issue for widow Erzsébet Czobor as head of the family was to secure the transfer of wealth to the next generation, if possible on the male line, so she was temporarily concerned about the health of her pregnant daughter-in-law. When Krisztina gave birth to a girl, however, her hopes were dashed. As Krisztina did not help secure the continuity of the Thurzó male line, she lost what little prestige she had had in her marital family. Consequently, the Thurzós not only refused to acknowledge her right to tutor her daughters and rejected any claim on her part to their considerable inheritance, but in order to secure their Lutheran faith in the future, their upbringing was entrusted to their paternal grandmother.42 This was unusual, since widowed mothers were usually deprived of their right to serve as tutors to their underage children only if they remarried, and they often could continue to provide daily care for their daughters and govern the schooling of their sons in their reconstituted families as well.43 In other words, the paternal families of underage half-orphans were concerned not about the influence of widowed mothers on the transmission of wealth, but rather about the influence of their new husbands, who became the stepfathers of the children in question.44 This kind of fear is articulated as a charge during the court trial against Krisztina’s new husband, Miklós Esterházy, over the tutorship of the Thurzó daughters: “Ezterházy is eager for the estates of the orphans […]. This title also deprives the woman of the tutorship, since she has also changed her name of her husband. And she has bound herself to a person eager to acquire the orphans’ estates”.45

But what fed these strong fears of the powerful Thurzó family when the woman they were dealing with was a 17-year-old widow? It seems improbable that they were indeed worried that much about the Lutheran upbringing of the girls under the care of a Calvinist mother, which they claimed before royal judges.46 Rather, they probably saw Krisztina as a risk factor in their campaign to receive the right of cognatic inheritance from the king, since the only tie between the two dynasties47 had been broken with the death of Imre Thurzó, which immediately turned the allied in-laws into enemies (“atyafiakból idegenek”). Repeated marriages between dynasties were remedies of the fragility of family connections and served to prevent or resolve conflicts by stabilizing alliances.48 The marriage arranged by Kata Várdai for her 14-year-old daughter three years earlier had constituted a venturous step: the bride had been the best possible match in the country at the time, but the Thurzós had been outsiders to the dense network of alliances among the Várdai-Telegdi-Nyáry-Szokoly-Melith-Csapy families.

As a result, following the death of her husband, Krisztina’s ties to her marital family were open to negotiation, but it seems that she did not trust her mother to come to her aid and provide support for her either. In this “liminal” moment, it was not at all evident that she belonged to her natal family. This bond was similarly open to negotiation, and in this process, in which their integration into or exclusion from the family was at stake, widows could play an active role. In the transitory period following the death of her husband, Krisztina tried to earn her mother’s support by assuming the role of the helpless and vulnerable widow:

Your Grace can see that I am a feeble woman, who can trust no one apart from God, only in your Grace. One of my supports was taken away from me by God, I am helpless on my own. […] My beloved Lady Mother, I ask you for the living God that your Grace would come to me. The testament of my beloved husband, who now rests with the Lord, is with me, which is another reason that your Grace should visit me.49

Her cry for help fell on deaf ears. Kata Várdai seems to have enjoyed her daughter’s defenselessness and humble plea, since she pretended not to have understood from the above letter that her daughter badly needed her help. Krisztina therefore had to repeat her request:


My heart is happy about your Grace’s reassuring words in her letter, which I will return with my services. My God has visited enough sorrow upon me, but his sacred will must be fulfilled. My beloved Lady Mother, your Grace has also asked me to write to your Grace whether your Grace’s visit was indeed necessary. My beloved Lady Mother, yes, it is absolutely necessary, since we have remained rather desolate in our present state. We do not know ourselves yet when the funeral will take place, because nothing is ready yet for it. If your Grace comes up here, we will talk about it together 50

Krisztina’s mother had already refused to provide support for her on other occasions, and Krisztina had had to beg for things that adult daughters of the time would have expected from their mothers. In January 1621, she even had to remind her mother of the risks of her upcoming childbirth: “My Lady Mother, I still ask you not to spare your energy and to visit us up here, who knows whether Your Grace can ever see me again.”51 She had to entice her mother the same way following her husband’s death. In this case, his testament, in which he made arrangements concerning the future of his widow and their daughters, served as the bait. Krisztina mentioned it in the post script: “My beloved Lady Mother, my only beloved husband has ordered in his life that I should not show it to anyone, only your Grace, thus if your Grace refuses to visit us, we will go against his last will.” Krisztina thus strove to earn her mother’s support by presenting herself as vulnerable and her mother as indispensable.52

For Kata Várdai, it was not self-evident that she would remain at her daughter’s side when Krisztina gave birth. In October 1620, István Nyáry, her son-in-law, urged his wife Anna to send her mother to be at her younger daughter’s side:

I would very much like my dear beloved soul, if my Lady her Highness [Kata Várdai] would come here by the time Mrs. Imre Thurzó needs to stay in bed [to give birth], perhaps His Majesty [the Prince of Transylvania] would also let me go in front of her Highness [Krisztina, who was approaching the last month of her pregnancy] and also home. My lord Imre Thurzó has shown me today her mother’s letter, in which she writes that my sister has not got more than five or six weeks before she gives birth.53


The son-in-law had to remind her of her maternal duties again, when Krisztina was close to giving birth for the second time: “With regards to your Highness’s desire to leave, I do not see any possibility for your Highness’s departure, since it would be very painful for my Lady Sister.”54

Although Kata Várdai may not have been able to satisfy her daughters’ emotional needs (most probably because of her own traumas she had suffered as a child), when she felt that her authority as mother was in danger, she vehemently defended it. When she was in conflict with her younger daughter and threatened to withhold her affections if Krisztina were to give in to her husband and convert from Calvinism to Lutheranism, she essentially was making a defensive show of her own power and prestige:

I beseech your grace, my sweet heart, Lady my mother, do not be cross with me for this issue of faith, for I have come to know my God and I want to remain in the true faith, as I do this not following my own head, but because I have read the Holy Scriptures and my beliefs are in accordance with them. My sweet heart, Lady my Mother, I also understand from your letter that your grace looks on Lady Erdődi55 as an example, Lord Erdődi, before he married her, took her hand and gave a letter of faith confirming that he would not trouble her over her faith. My sweet heart, my Lady Mother, your grace also wrote that Lady Thököly56 also did not leave her faith, because my sweet heart, my Lady Mother, they also took care for her. Your grace also writes in her letter that I have forgotten your grace’s motherly admonitions. Lord forfend that I forget your grace’s motherly admonitions, but I owe this to my God, and also that as long as I live, I strive to serve your grace with a true heart.57


According to the script for emotional blackmail, first Kata Várdai created a sense of fear in her daughter by accusing her of having defied her mother, and then she would withhold her motherly love (“do not be cross with me”). She would then try to appeal to her daughter’s sense of reason or even jealousy by mentioning Krisztina’s sisters-in-law (Borbála and Katalin Thurzó) as examples of women who, though they were in denominationally mixed marriages (to Kristóf Erdődy, a Catholic, and István Thököly, a Calvinist), nonetheless remained adherents of the faith they had received from their parents.58 Then, using the typical tool at the disposal of the emotionally manipulative, she would try to make her daughter feel guilty by accusing her of showing no regard for the religious upbringing she had been given (“Lord forfend that I forget your grace’s motherly admonitions”) and, in doing so, neglecting her duties as a daughter.59

For Kata Várdai, her daughter’s religion was a question of immense importance, as her very prestige as a mother was at stake. By mentioning the Thurzó daughters, she was clearly also sending a message to Erzsébet Czobor, who may very well have had close knowledge of Krisztina’s correspondence with her mother. If her daughters had remained true to the faith into which they had been born, then Kata Várdai’s daughter clearly also should be granted the right to be left in peace on matters of religion. If Krisztina’s actual commitment to her faith had been a question of importance to her mother, Kata Várdai never would have allowed her to marry first a Calvinist and then a Catholic.

Krisztina reacted with a show of confidence to her mother’s attempts at emotional blackmail, which shows that she was not as closely dependent on her mother as her sister was and she was better able to protect herself. In order to reassure her mother, she reproduces the lesson she has probably heard many times also from her mother. Drawing on the polemical discourse of the era (and in doing so, showing herself to be resourceful and knowledgeable), she uses the only argument that was considered a legitimate explanation for the choice of faith. She claims that she has come to know the truth, which she came to know, furthermore, by reading the Scriptures. In other words, she made this decision not as the consequence of some miracle, but rather through intellectual endeavor.60 In short, she insists that she is not abandoning the Calvinist adherence to the truth which she came to know, as a child, by reading the Bible. She closes her letter with the following words:

My sweet heart, my Lady Mother, your grace wrote that my loving husband is indeed fortunate, I believe that my God saves his grace from all evil, and anything should happen I believe my God that your grace will not withhold your motherly love from me.61


With this sentence, she deviates from her earlier argument according to which her free choice of faith can only be based on knowledge of the truth, and she writes instead of the influences of family ties and the conflicting pressures being put on her by her husband and her mother. In other words, here she speaks of her actual situation, although she uses the conditional mode. It is worth noting that she is actually saying the same thing here, in her own words, that she may have read in Péter Pázmány’s narratives of female conversion:62 family compulsions stand in the way of following the truth one has realized. And while Pázmány, the Catholic archbishop and polemicist, calls on transcendent forces to help resolve this inner drama, Krisztina proposes the possibility of unconditional maternal love. At the same time asks her enraged mother (still using the conditional) to respond with unconditional love were Krisztina to defy the maternal will, or in other words were she chose to disobey her and convert.63 Thus, in the seventeenth century, the idea of conditional parental (paternal) and unconditional maternal love existed side by side, and Krisztina skillfully manipulated this in her conflict with her mother to gain some room for maneuver. By referring to her duties to God (“I owe this to my God”) in her confrontation with her mother, Krisztina seems to put Kata Várdai against God himself.

Krisztina’s assertiveness with her mother was facilitated by her intermediate position between her two families. Her intermediate position found expression very markedly when Krisztina lost her husband, and the two families became entangled in a fierce rivalry for control over the young widow. Though her mother-in-law left Krisztina with no influence over her daughters, this did not mean that Krisztina was excluded entirely from her marital family. On the contrary, Erzsébet Czobor tried to secure the smooth intergenerational transmission of wealth by reintegrating Krisztina (and her considerable paternal and maternal inheritance) into the Thurzó dynasty. She wanted to arrange Krisztina’s next marriage herself (instead of allowing her natal family to arrange it) within the circle of the Thurzó allies and in-laws. Below, I examine the stages of the rivalry between the mother and the mother-in-law, who as the heads of their families sought to strengthen their families’ prestige and influence by forging a new alliance.

The Rivalry between the Two Families for Influence over the Widow

In 1622, Kata Várdai entrusted her motherly role for her daughter and granddaughters to her daughter’s mother-in-law: “My dear beloved Lady, I entrust to your to Highness’s maternal care, as if to my own eyes, my beloved orphaned64 daughter, together with her sweet children, and I ask from my heart your Highness not to withhold your Highness’s motherly love and care, which your Highness has shown them so far.65 This gesture was intended to calm the furious matriarch, who had expressed her indignation when her rival, Kata Várdai, has proposed, as if offering a compromise, that she would take her daughter home with her and the granddaughters would be sent to the Viennese court. Unsurprisingly, Erzsébet was not appeased by the offer. In January 1623, she pressed her daughter-in-law to sign an agreement in which she forfeited any claim to the right to raise her own daughters.66

At the same time, Várdai started negotiations in the background, her intimate allies being her elder daughter and her husband. In February 1622, shortly before Krisztina gave birth to her second child, Várdai sent her son-in-law István Nyáry to meet with one of the highest dignitaries of the country. Nyáry wrote in one of his letters to her to confirm that he had received her instructions: “I have received your Highness’s letter, I understand your Highness’s order that I should talk and arrange my sister’s affairs [Krisztina’s affairs, his wife’s half-sister] with my lord brother, Péter Révay. […] I strive with all my heart to serve in all possible ways my beloved lady sister.”67 Várdai also sought to “free” her daughter from the “captivity” of the Thurzó family. In 1623, she recurrently expressed her anxiety to her elder daughter over Krisztina’s plight: “My sweet daughter, I have no rest day and night in my thinking about my poor sweet orphan, your younger sister, and how could we rescue her from that Purgatory”68 In another letter, she wrote “I am so very desperate about the fate of my poor orphan […]. You could write me, my sweet daughter, what exactly they want, or we can speak about it when God brings you home. Somehow we must rescue your sweet sister from there.”69

Meanwhile, Kata Várdai informed Krisztina that she would “try to please my relatives, which I will do by readily serving them.” The advice she gave as Krisztina’s mother may well have been a tool with which she sought to gain some time in preparation for the next battle in the war for influence over Krisztina and control of her future and for the negotiations taking place in background concerning her next marriage. By this time, Kata Várdai had a candidate for the groom, as is clear form comments made by Krisztina in one of her letters to her mother: “From your Grace’s letter I understand that your Grace anxiously takes care of me, which I fully believe, since after God I trust only your Grace. My sweet heart, my lady mother, with regards to the Kassa affair, I ask your Grace to tell me more about it.”70 The term “Kassa affair” is a reference to Kata Várdai’s attempts in the city of Kassa (today Košice, Slovakia) at arranging Krisztina’s second marriage.

At the same time, she asked her elder daughter to procure the approval of the prince of Transylvania for the marriage between and Krisztina this man, since the man was is in his service. Anna touches on this in one of her letters to her mother:

I understand your Grace’s order concerning my sweet sister, therefore I trust my God that I will be able to achieve this, especially if the assembly in Kassa took place, claiming that my husband is ill, as he is, as if he was present at the assembly in your Grace’s name […], I would have a wonderful chance to carry out this plan. He [the groom candidate] was next to His Royalty in Tokaj as well, as Csáky says, who praises him moreover to be a good young man […]. If only my God would allow him to become my kind brother-in-law, whom I could keep as my son. 71


While Anna Telegdi readily attempted to carry out her mother’s plans, Kata Várdai soon produced an alternative candidate: Miklós Esterházy, who at the time was the second most influential political dignitary and who soon (in 1625) would become palatine of Hungary. Talks were underway with him at the time too, and Kata Várdai was seeking the advice of her son-in-law for on final decision. István Nyáry offered her the following reply:

Your Highness commands me to write whether I prefer Eszterházy or the other man from Kassa. For many reasons Eszterházy is better, but I do not trust this and cannot imagine any way to carry out this plan. I cannot tell about Lord Csuti of the affair either, the Eszterházy affair, since he does not like Eszterházy. We could achieve this in other ways too, if only my sister has not tied herself in the meantime to elsewhere, since I know well that a servant of my Lord Eszterházy is coming to my lady Highness with whom we can arrange the affair if both God and my sister want it.


István Nyáry passed on the latest news to his wife.72 While the married stepsiblings may have had doubts concerning the implementation of their “mother’s” ambitious plans, they unbendingly supported her aim of getting back their sister and marrying her off again. Krisztina’s happiness may well have been an important consideration, but so was the extension of the kinship network with the addition of another powerful in-law. Krisztina meanwhile found herself faced with other pressures: her mother-in-law was mapping the marriage market with the help of her in-law, Szaniszló Thurzó, the palatine of the kingdom (it was after his death in 1625 that Miklós Esterházy would become palatine).73 In the summer of 1623, they were considering having their widowed daughter-in-law marry Ferenc Liszti, the captain of Szamosújvár (Gherla, Romania) and Szaniszló’s brother-in-law.74 In a letter to István Nyáry, Thurzó announced their intentions to the Várdai-Telegdi family, asking them to support their decision:

Last summer with my beloved wife75 we contacted your Grace and your Grace’s beloved wife with our letters sent from Pöstyén,76 announcing our will that we want to marry the widow of the late Count Imre Thurzó, my Lord Brother, to my Lord brother-in-law Ferenc Liszthius and also asking your Grace to promote the case with my lady Mrs. Pál Nyáry,77 on whose good will the issue depends. Your Grace has promised his great the support and solidarity of his kinsmen, in which we fully trust. We have written again to Mrs. Pál Nyáry about the same affair, and we assume that we will not be disappointed in our hopes, if her Highness displays her good will. Therefore, we request your Grace and your Grace’s beloved wife (to whom we offer our services through your Grace) to recommend the case to my lady Mrs. Pál Nyáry so that we receive her kind answer. Your Grace should believe that we will gratefully compensate your Grace’s trouble and kinsman’s solidarity in all times. We recommend the affair also to the Prince of Transylvania,78 so that his Majesty can also propose our affair to my lady Mrs. Pál Nyáry, your Grace should not let his Majesty forget the case. We expect your Graces kind answer.79


Assuming that they were superior in power, the Thurzós make a rather extraordinary and even offensive request as if their wishes were merely the natural order of things. Finding a spouse for a woman who had been widowed was considered the responsibility of the families into which they were born, and it was only a question of decency and custom to ask the consent of the family of the deceased husband.80 Nevertheless, as the affair between the Thurzó and Várdai-Telegdi families suggests, the search for a new spouse for a young widow was in fact a power game, during which family relations were subject to negotiation. Obviously, chances for cooperation instead of conflict must have been better in cases in which the two dynasties belonged to the same dense network of marital allies and were connected in several ways. The self-confidence of the Thurzós, reflected in their bold request, was arguably a rhetorical tool intended simply to convince the rival family that they had no say in the matter or little chance of prevailing if they attempted to defy the will of the Thurzó clan. But they were aware of the fact that the Várdai-Telegdi family also wielded considerable influence, and they tried to overcome this by dividing their enemies. The stepson and son-in-law István Nyáry was approached in the hopes that he would be able to sway Kata Várdai, who was the decision-making matriarch of the family.81 István’s phrasing implies that Krisztina did not refuse the idea of this marriage: she preferred to be reaffirmed as a member of the more powerful Thurzó kinship network as the wife of Ferenc Liszthius than to be compelled to marry the man her mother had found for her in the meantime, the young nobleman (whom I could not identify) in the Bethlen entourage.

At that moment, Kata Várdai was definitely losing the battle. The matriarch of Várda did not respond well to challenges to her authority. At the beginning of 1624, she launched a bold, new campaign, as a result of which, in February, the new candidate for Krisztina’s hand in marriage was Miklós Esterházy, the best possible match, the new rising star on the cloudy sky of the divided kingdom. In other words, respecting neither God nor secular power (Esterházy was a Catholic, and he was the leader of the Habsburg-oriented political group), she won him as her daughter’s second husband. He was a widow and 20 years her senior, and he would refer to her as “my son” until his death.82 This was a final blow to Erzsébet Czobor. The royal fiscus was just donating the ancient Thurzó lands, given the failure to produce a male heir, to the political rival of the late Imre Thurzó, Miklós Esterházy.83 And even though Esterházy was a parvenu among prestigious aristocrats like the Czobors, Thurzós and Várdais and they spoke about him among themselves with contempt,84 mothers and widows were still locked in fierce contest for his hand. At his first wedding, in 1612, when he was still unaccustomed to the wealth he had gained through marriage, he made a cheeky show of this. Anna Telegdy, who was present for the wedding, wrote of this in a letter to her mother: “My dear lay mother, no one has presented any gifts, since Eszterházy refused to accept them, saying that he has enough wealth anyway.” Anna also wrote to her mother of how she had been unable to resist the pressures put on her by the groom, and she had accepted the role of bridesmaid.85 Kata’s new son-in-law, like her, was not lacking in willpower, which he learned to assert shrewdly and delicately, thus securing the loyalty of others and avoiding uses of force. Anna wrote of his generosity in a letter to her mother written twelve years later during the preparations for Krisztina’s marriage: “I have received today from my lord Eszterházy a very nice pearl necklace and a diamond ring, and we gave him a handkerchief and a chief of flowers.”86

Krisztina was apparently not disturbed by the huge age gap. She decided to go home to her mother, leaving her daughters behind in the Thurzó court only once Esterházy had become her betrothed. Thus, maneuvering between the two family matriarchs, she managed to make the decision concerning who would be her second husband. Her distancing from her marital family is reflected by her newfound ability overtly to say no to her mother-in-law’s requests, which she did more than once in her letters sent from her natal home following April 1624. This constituted a shift in the language of subordination that she continued to use.87

Erzsébet Czobor, who was also very sensitive to the smallest challenge to her authority, sought like wounded animals to the end. Anna wrote of this in a letter to her mother five days before Krisztina’s wedding at their curia in requests: “Mrs. Thurzó wanted to grab my sister from us and take her to the castle of Árva,88 only the palatine89 could stop her from holding the wedding there and having it consummated by Krisztina and Liszthius”.90 Krisztina therefore needed to be attentively guarded: “My beloved lady mother, yesterday I sent the steward and the old woman [the head of the women’s court] to Letava91 for some of my belongings, since I was not allowed to go myself.”92Esterházy had an entire army to escort him, and he oversaw the preparations himself.93 The successful outcome of the “battle,” however, remained uncertain up to the very end: “People were rather afraid that the events will take another turn, […]. God be praised, in modest silence, not blatantly, my dear lady mother, God’s power is abundant and your Grace find calmness in her sweet motherly heart.”94

The Half-Sisters

Anna often played the role of caring mother not only with her mother but also with her sister. Given the large age difference between them, the elder half-sibling regularly found herself in the role of a mother. Anna seems to have played this caring role with the child (1610–1618), the wife (1618–1621), and the widow (1621–1624) Krisztina, too.95 She worried about her little sister when Krisztina was pregnant, much as a mother might have.96 Anna—not Kata Várdai—replaced the book of the gospels which had gone missing when Krisztina was confined to her sickbed: “What my sweet soul sister writes, I take with great joy, though they brought no money, but were I to set some aside, I will buy it for my soul. I will send the Gospels in Károly,97 the great national crowd will be there, when we arrive.”98 After having worked with her mother for two years on her widowed sister’s “liberation” and the task of finding her a second husband, in the end, in July of 1624, the task of tending to the preparations for the wedding also fell on her shoulders: “Our wains, my sweet lady mother, have not yet arrived, and this will be a great loss, for we do not have good vinegar. [...] Indeed, I face great difficulty, I have come not to a wedding, but rather to worry, they are dancing, drinking, I have to make a fortune from nothing.”99 Reading these lines alongside Krisztina’s letter written the same day, one senses some disapproval of her sister in her tone, as Krisztina played the role of a child next to her elder sister and enjoyed the lack of responsibility. Krisztina wrote, “We are quite happy here, the sick girls also danced away the cold. My Sweet loving Lady Mother, I know my loving sister informed your grace of everything.”100 With the unusual manner in which she indicates the place in which the letter was written (“from Szucsány, with which I am bored”), Anna subtly hints to her mother that she is fed up with the motherly role she has had to play for her sister.101

Anna Telegdi could not openly express her negative feelings about her sister (her indignation in the passages cited above, perhaps a touch of jealousy in passages cited below) to her mother: “my sister was very happy indeed for the money your grace provided her, she will serve your grace as her loving lady mother, though thank God, she did not have great need of it, since the lady her greatness102 has given her a nice income, I cannot write your grace how pleased she was to see it.”103 There is an enigmatic sentence in a letter she wrote in February 1622, after her husband had brought her back from Biccse and Kata Várdai had remained with Krisztina, who was soon going to give birth: “I could write your grace of something quite wondrous concerning my sister, but as God gives me life, I am not an ill-willed sibling, about whom, with your grace coming before God, I will speak amply on whom your grace will marvel.” 104 Anna was referring to her bewilderment at her sister’s conduct. The fact that Kata Várdai was in a position to express negative feelings while Anna was not stems from the fact (and demonstrates) that Anna was in a position of subordination to her mother. She may have felt the compulsion to use veiled references instead of open communication because she had already learned that it was not worth expressing her true feelings bluntly, as they would be ignored or, in a worse-case scenario, she might even be punished for having voiced them.105

These veiled expressions of negative feelings came to the surface during the family negotiations after the death of Imre Thurzó and Krisztina’s remarriage, but even in these conflict-laden periods, gestures of support and solidarity remained dominant in the relationship between the half-sisters. After the death of her first husband, Krisztina found herself in a difficult situation. Her mother-in-law had been given guardianship over her two daughters and had essentially excluded her from the girls’ upbringing in a manner that was extraordinary. She had also tried to assume control over the issue of Krisztina’s potential remarriage. During these long two years, Anna worried a great deal about her widowed sister’s fate: “Just that my sweet Krisztina Nyáry should live, and may the Lord give her good fortune,” she wrote in a letter to her mother.106 In addition, she took on numerous tasks in order to bring her sister home from the Thurzó court and ensure that she and her mother find Krisztina a second husband. Her own interests coincided with those of the family: another good match for her sister would serve to raise the social standing of every member of the family.

The rivalry and envy between the two sisters may well have been caused by the difference in their social ranks, which was a consequence of the different paternal inheritances of the maternal half-siblings and the differing statuses of their fathers’ families. The comparatively modest estates left by Pál Telegdi to his daughter, Anna, in Bereg-Zemplén could not compete with the significant estates which Pál Nyáry left his daughter, Krisztina.107 The resulting inequality, however, was more or less offset by the two clever moves made by the mother, Kata Várdai, who became the head of the family as a widow. The respectable bequest left by István Báthori and the marriage between the stepsiblings, through which Anna Telegdi became István Nyáry’s wife, significantly improved Anna’s position. Krisztina’s two marriages then elevated her well above her sister in social position in principle, but the prestige the two girls enjoyed as the wives of prominent men came largely from the family of their birth, which continued to expect loyalty and service from them.108 That is why, even when she was the wife of “count” Imre Thurzó and then of “count” Miklós Esterházy, Krisztina Nyáry still referred to herself as the “little sister who serves with a true heart” in her letters to her sister, which indicates her lower position in the family hierarchy. In other words, status in their relationship was determined primarily by their birth order, which typically meant a significant age difference for half-siblings. As we have seen, Krisztina became a playmate of her nephew, Ferkó, who was much closer to her in age, while her elder sister played a motherly role at her side, and she continued to play this role even after Krisztina had married. Krisztina herself associated Anna’s performances of loving concern with Anna’s role as a mother figure: “In this very hour your grace’s humble servant Kristóf Egry has arrived, and I understand from what he says that you are very worried about my sick state. Indeed, I believed him, sweet loving sister, for like my dear mother, your grace has always had such a kind heart to me.”109 The letter which Krisztina wrote to her mother differ little from the letters that she wrote to her sister. She was able to count on compassion and consolation when she wrote of the unpleasant feeling she had in her husband’s court of being a stranger. Her sister passed on these concerns to her mother, as if it were considered self-evident that she would do so: “My sweet lady mother, as my letter will make clear to you concerning my dear sister’s state, I sincerely pity her sweet soul when she writes that she had no other music than the howling of the wolf, of whom I know God has so far consoled her, because lord Thurzó [Imre Thurzó, Krisztina’s husband] went home. 110

However, the exceptional, playful, even joking tone of Krisztina’s letters to Anna, which seems more the tone of an exchange between equal partners than an exchange between people in a vertical hierarchy, is a clear break from the register of a mother-daughter relationship. The following lines offer a glimpse into the moment when the hierarchy between the two sisters was suspended:

Sweet, loving, dear lady sister, I understand from your letter that your grace found Lady Mihály Czobor111 in Pricopan,112 and your grace merrily lived with her, only your grace caused sadness in my heart, when I thought of how in this merriment we cannot be together with sweet Katica Thurzó,113 I could not bear it without shedding tears. Sweet, dear lady my sister, I ask your grace, let us not be forgotten by your grace, let us be in your grace’s memory, if not every time, then at least when your grace sits into the baths.114


The cultural context of the relationships discussed above between female family members (mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, sisters) was the domestic space, which in this case was the aristocratic female courts. Letter exchanges between female family members have drawn the contours of this pragmatic and intimate kinship network, which functioned alongside the hegemonic patrilineal family and which was organized and inhabited by women, their central figures being mothers and their daughters. This alternative female space and horizontal web of relations may have rendered the marginal status of women in the patriarchal family more livable, since the central role of female networks in making marriages, mediating conflicts, and forming public opinion offered them a significant form of power.115 Thus, I suggest that the longevity of the patriarchal family across centuries can perhaps be attributed not only to its inner “structures of mitigation,” its own flexibility, as Linda Pollock has argued, but also to these alternative female networks and the connections between sisters and sisters-in-law, cousins, and female friends, which contributed to its sustainability.116

We have seen Krisztina Nyáry negotiating her mediating role as wife between her two families and two “mothers,” and the letters exchanged by the sisters and their mother also offer insights into her tactics of gaining the support of her mother by painting a dramatic image of herself as a vulnerable widow. Her excessive use of a stereotypical self-representation as a vulnerable widow may indicate her lack of trust in her short-tempered mother, who was unable to provide unconditional love and predictable support for her daughters due to her narcissistic personality. We also saw how, by maneuvering shrewdly between the two dominant mother figures, Krisztina was ultimately able to make the decision concerning her second husband herself.

One of the general lessons of our case study is, therefore, that women’s in-between position between their natal and marital lineages and their marginality in the patrilineal family could be appropriated by individuals for their own purposes. How widows were reintegrated into the hegemonic family system via their remarriage (assuming that they did remarry, as most widows under the age of 40 did) depended greatly on their own choices and performances, too. Though the mother-in-law’s efforts to reintegrate her wealthy daughter-in-law into her own alliance network may seem exceptional, it was obviously possible, even if Krisztina’s natal family happened to win the rivalry in this particular case. In other words, the remarriage of widows was a negotiating process depending on power relations rather than on static norms or family structures.

The elder half-sister offered gestures of maternal care not only to her mother, who often assumed the role of the child, but also to her younger sister. The structural asymmetries of their age, rank, and distance from their mother notwithstanding, the maternal half-sister bond operated on a basis of strong emotional and familial solidarity rather than rivalry. The continuity of the maternal role played by Anna Telegdi throughout Krisztina’s childhood, adulthood, and widowhood suggests, moreover, that married women remained in close connection with their natal families.

The manner in which Anna consistently played a motherly role in her relationship with her sister, even during the consecutive life-cycles of Krisztina, plausibly suggests that married women continued to maintain strong bonds with their natal families. This was of particular importance for Krisztina, who was only loosely integrated into her husband’s family. The intermediary role played by Krisztina between her two families and the greater spatial and emotional distance from her mother (in comparison to Anna, who lived in the same household as their mother and was thus arguably more dependent on her wishes and her goodwill) rendered her more capable of defending herself from their mother’s anger and emotional abuses. The close reading of the mother-daughter debates highlights, furthermore, that in the religious climate of the seventeenth century, alongside the notion of unconditional maternal (or, more generally, parental) love, the concept of conditional love was also accepted.

Archival Sources

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives] (MNL OL), Budapest

P 108. The archives of the princely lineage of the Esterházy family

P 707. The Archive of the Zichy Family, Correspondence

Országos Széchényi Könyvtár [National Széchényi Library], Budapest

Manuscript Collection, Fol. Hung. vol. 2638/2. The collection of copies of letters by Hungarian women


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1 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva (Lietava, Szlovákia), October 26, 1621. MNL OL, P 707, Missiles, no. 10699.

2 See Broomhall and Van Gent, Gender, Power and Identity.

3 See for example Duchonová, “Női családi szerepek.”

4 Horn, “Nemesi árvák a kora újkorban.” On the case of an elite widowed mother raising her own children, see also Balogh, “Özvegység, újraházasodás és testvéri kapcsolatok.” On how and why remarrying mothers were stigmatized as “cruel” by their children and marital family members, see: Klapisch-Zuber, “The ‘Cruel mother’.”

5 For the meaning of the concept “exceptional normal” proposed by Italian microhistorians for the problem of representativity of exceptional cases, see Peltonen, “Clues, Margins, and Monads.”

6 Chabot, “Seconde Nozze e Identita Materna,“ 495–96; Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 100, 107.

7 Forty-eight letters written by Krisztina to her mother have survived from the years between 1618 and 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10661–10708), while all the letters written by Kata Várdai to Krisztina were lost. We know of nine letters written by Krisztina to her sister from the years between 1619 and 1633 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9696–9704), seven of which are dated prior to 1624. All of Anna’s replies are lost. On the correspondence between Krisztina Nyáry and Erzsébet Czobor, see Duchonová, “Női családi szerepek.”

8 For more on the practice of stepsibling marriages, see Erdélyi, “Stepfamily Relations in Autobiographical Writings,” 146–67 and Warner, “Conclusion,” 239–42.

9 “Beautiful Várda”: Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Várda, April 4, 1622 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10868).

10 Ipolyi, Bedegi Nyáry Krisztina.

11 Erdélyi, “Anyaság a kora újkorban.”

12 On the uses of names by aristocratic women, see Péter, “Az asszony neve.” In the signatures at the ends of their letters, the women of the aristocracy usually used their Christian names and the names they had inherited from their fathers. Only rarely did they also use their husband’s names with the “né” suffix (which in Hungarian means, roughly, “woman of” and which corresponds, again roughly, to the title Mrs. in English). This use of the husband’s name with the suffix “né” was used only in exceptional cases on its own.

13 Péter, Esterházy Miklós.

14 Ruppel, Verbündete Rivalen.

15 Erzsébet Czobor’s letters to Kata Várdai, which, with the exception of the last two, were written while her son was still alive: MNL OL, P 707, no. 10278–10309 (1618–February, 1622). On Krisztina’s pregnancy: MNL OL, P 707, no. 10308, the end is missing (after August 9, 1621). Kata Várdai’s letters to Erzsébet Czobor: National Széchényi Library, Manuscript Collection, Fol. Hung. vol. 2638/2. (The collection of copies of letters by Hungarian women) fol. 167, 210–11, 337–38, 415 (1617–1621).

16 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai, April 28, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10661).

17 See for example: “My sweet heart, my Lady Mother, as my Lady her Greatness sent letters to Tokaj, I too wanted to visit your grace and inquire as to your grace’s health and how your grace is faring.” Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, January 7, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10691).

18 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, October 31, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10668).

19 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, June 2, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10690). Her last letter before this was written on May 16.

20 Geographically it meant a distance of circa 500 kilometers, as Biccse is situated in the northwestern region of what was Habsburg Hungary, while Várda (Kisvárda today in Hungary) was in the eastern parts. However, during these years, Várda became attached to the principality in the peace treaty of Nikolsburg (1621) as a result of the military victories of Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania (1613–1629), over Ferdinand II Habsburg, King of Hungary (1618–1637) during the Thirty Years’ War.

21 Schneider, The Culture Of Epistolarity.

22 On this concept, see ibid, 22–28.

23 For instance, at the beginning of the letter written on December 13, 1620: “I hope that the good Lord keeps your graces in good health for many years, both my loving sister and my Lady.” (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10662).

24 In the school which she maintained in her court in Biccse, the grandmother raised many grandchildren, boys and girls, and her married daughters often used her court in part for this reason. See Bódai, “Szülői szerepek és gondoskodás.” Czobor Erzsébet Mint Anya És Mostohaanya.” And Erzsébet Czobor’s letters to Kata Várdai: MNL OL, P 707, no. 10278–309.

25 György Thurzó and Erzsébet Czobor’s eldest daughter, Borbála Thurzó’s first husband (they were married in 1612 and he died in 1620) was Kristóf Erdődy.

26 György Thurzó and Erzsébet Czobor’s daughter, Mária Thurzó, wife of Mihály Vizkelety (1594–1662).

27 Erzsébet Czobor’s younger, still unmarried daughters, Anna Thurzó, Katalin Thurzó, and a third who may have been named Erzsébet.

28 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, Saturday 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10665).

29 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. February 10, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10677).

30 Ibid. On April 24, she asked her mother again: “As for what concerns the affair of my old woman, indeed she would love to go and see her children, so my sweet loving soul, my Lady Mother, send to their home to find out how they are, and your grace write it to me.”(MNL OL, P 707, no. 10675.)

31 Anna Telegdi to her niece, Erzsébet Szokoly. Várda, April 20, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9216).

32 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, January 15, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10683).

33 György Thurzó invented the Hungarian title of count, drawing on the German example, and in 1606, he became the first person on whom this title was bestowed. Pálffy, “A Thurzó család.”

34 Her half-sister, Anna Telegdi wrote all her letters to their mother herself.

35 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, March 16, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10676).

36 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, October 31, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10668).

37 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, January 15, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10683).

38 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, Saturday 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10665).

39 Krisztina Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. Biccse, May 29, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9696).

40 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, May 16, 1622 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10704).

41 István Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. October 30, 1621 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9679a).

42 See for example: Duchonová, “Női családi szerepek.”

43 For some examples, see Horn, “Nemesi árvák,” 64–68.

44 On the collective fears concerning stepfathers, which found expression in law, see Warner, “Conclusion.”

45 MNL OL, P 108, Repositorium 29., Fasc. B., no. 26., fols 1–7.

46 MNL OL, P 108, Rep. 29., Fasc. B., no. 28., fol. 14–18.

47 I use the concept of dynasty as an equivalent of the term familia, which was used at the time to denote lineages deriving from the same ancestor. Thus, I extend the meanings of the term from its narrower usage (a term for ruling families) to economically and politically powerful aristocratic family networks.

48 Spieß, Familie und Verwandtschaft.

49 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, October 26, 1621 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10699).

50 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, November 7, 1621 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10700).

51 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, January 18, 1621 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10696).

52 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Zsolnalitva, October 26, 1621, postscript (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10699).

53 István Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. Pozsony (Bratislava, Slovakia), October 21, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9667).

54 István Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Szucsány, February 1, 1622 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10659).

55 On Borbála Thurzó, see footnotes 25 and 58.

56 György Thurzó and Erzsébet Czobor’s daughter Katalin Thurzó (1601–1647) married István Thököly of Késmárk in 1620.

57 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, April 4, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10693).

58 Regarding Borbála Thurzó’s religious belonging, we know that she converted to Catholicism during her second marriage under the influence of her second husband, János Draskovics. Her first husband, Kristóf Erdődy, was buried in the chapter church of Nagyszombat (Tyrnava, Slovakia), which means that when he died, he belonged to the Catholic Church. Furthermore, several sources indicate that Katalin Thurzó remained Lutheran and provided support for Lutheran publications. I would like to thank Borbála Benda for this information.

59 Emotional blackmail is used to create a sense of fear, guilt, and failure to fulfill obligations and, in doing so, to sway the person targeted to give in and submit to the other person’s will instead of enduring these negative emotions. Forward and Frazier, Emotional blackmail.

60 This is the reasoning found in the Protestant and Catholic narratives of conversion at the time, both by women and by men. Erdélyi, “Confessional Identity.”

61 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, April 4, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10693).

62 For example in his treatise entitled Nyolc Okok, or “Eight Reasons,” which Pázmány wrote it in an effort to convert the aristocratic widow, Judit Révay. Erdélyi, “Confessional Identity,” 476.

63 We do not actually know what happened, but it is possible that there was an attempt to convert Krisztina in Biccse. In the end, she converted to Catholicism in 1624 as Miklós Esterházy’s wife.

64 In the patriarchal noble family, only children who had lost their fathers, the head of the family, their male superior responsible for their wellbeing were legally considered orphans. Therefore, widowed women in Hungary were similarly called “orphans,” and they referred to themselves as orphans, thus emphasizing their vulnerability. For more details, see Erdélyi, Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon.

65 I quote the letter from the biography of Imre Thurzó, in which the author does not tell us the date of the letter. Kubinyi, Bethlenfalvi gróf Thurzó Imre. https://mek.oszk.hu/05600/05613/html/. Last accessed on 2 July, 2020.

66 “Transaction between Krisztina and Erzsébet Czobor in the castle of Trencsén, in front of Szaniszló Thurzó, about the supporting, education and caretaking of the children.” MNL OL, P 108, Rep. 29., Fasc. B., no. 31, fols 23–25, and fols 26–27. The Thurzós referred back to this “agreement” during the court trial over tutorship from 1624.

67 István Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Kassa, February 29, 1622 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10658).

68 Kata Várdai to Anna Telegdi. Várda, Friday, 1623 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9808)

69 Kata Várdai to Anna Telegdi. Várda, Tuesday, 1623 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9811).

70 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Biccse, September 17, 1623 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10705).

71 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Csicsva (Čičva, Slovakia), September 8, 1623 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10872).

72 István Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. Kassa (Košice, Slovakia), February 12, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9681).

73 Szaniszló Thurzó (1576–1625) was a distant cousin of György Thurzó (1567–1616), the late husband of Erzsébet Czobor.

74 The Palatine Szaniszló Thurzó’s wife was Anna Rozina Liszti, whose first cousin was Ferenc Liszti.

75 Anna Rozina Liszti.

76 Piešťany (Slovakia), one of the most spa towns of the region.

77 Kata Várdai, the widow of Pál Nyáry.

78 Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania (1613–29).

79 Szaniszló Thurzó to István Nyáry. Vienna, February 29, 1624. (MNL OL, P 707, no. 7964). Quoted in Slovak translation by Duchoňová, Palatín Mikuláš Esterházy, 402. https://veda.sav.sk/kniha/duchonova-diana-palatin-mikulas-esterhazy-dvorska-spolocnost-a-aristokraticka-kazdodennost. Last accessed on September 22, 2020.

80 On how Erzsébet Czobor expressed her feeling of outrage at not having been asked to accept the marriage see Duchonová, “Női családi szerepek,” 51. In eighteenth-century Russia it was the right of the deceased husband’s family to organize the wedding for the widow. (I would like to thank Barbara Alpern for this information.)

81 István Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. Kassa, February 9, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no 9682).

82 Merényi, “Esterházy Miklós újabb levelei Nyáry Krisztinához,” 354–86 and 481–512., passim.

83 Kubinyi, Bethlenfalvi gróf Thurzó Imre. http://mek.niif.hu/05600/05613/html/. Last accessed on July 9, 2020)

84 When Krisztina told her mother-in-law the news of her upcoming wedding, Erzsébet Czobor reminded her of how shocked her mother and sister had been when Esterházy had wanted to marry Zsuzsanna Erdődy. Letter quoted by Duchonová, “Női családi szerepek.”

85 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Szentmiklós (Beregszentmiklós, Чинадійово, Ukrajna), 1612 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10870).

86 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Szucsány, July16, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10876).

87 Duchonová, “Női családi szerepek,” 52.

88 Oravský hrad, in north Slovakia, another castle of the Thurzó family,

89 Szaniszló Thurzó (1576–1625), palatine (1622–25).

90 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Szucsány, July 16, 1616 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10876).

91 Castle of Lietava (Lietavský hrad, Slovakia), a nearby castle of the Thurzó family where Krisztina held her court.

92 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Szucsány, July 16, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10707).

93 See the above letter of Anna Telegdi to her mother about their arrival and reception in Szucsány. Szucsány, July 16, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10876).

94 Ibid.

95 In the summer of 1624, Krisztina married again. Her second husband was Miklós Esterházy, the most prominent pro-Habsburg politician of the Hungarian aristocracy.

96 See the quote above (in footnote 118) from the Anna Telegdi’s letter to Kata Várdai. February 4, 1622. (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10862).

97 The town of Nagykároly (today Carei, Romania).

98 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Nagykálló, May 29, 1621 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10859).

99 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Szucsány, July 16, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10876)

100 Krisztina Nyáry to Kata Várdai. Szucsány, July 16, 1624 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10707).

101 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Nagykálló, May 29, 1621 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10859).

102 Erzsébet Czobor, Krisztina Nyáry’s mother-in-law.

103 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Beszterce (today Banská Bystrica, Slovakia), July, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10850).

104 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Varannó, February 9, 1622 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10863).

105 Berne, Games People Play.

106 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Csicsva, September 14, 1623 (MNL OL, P 707 10874).

107 Benda, Nyáry Pál és Várday Kata levelezése, introducton.

108 See Ruppel, Verbündete Rivalen, 219.

109 Krisztina Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. Zsolnalitva, July 19, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9697).

110 Anna Telegdi to Kata Várdai. Kassa, January 29, 1620 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 10843). Nine of Krisztina’s letters to Anna have survived from the period between 1619 and 1633 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9696–9704). Seven were written before 1624, and two were written in her own hand (no. 9700–01). Anna’s letters to Krisztina have not survived.

111 Mihály Czobor (1575–1616) was Erzsébet Czobor’s younger brother. As his second wife, he took his stepdaughter, Zsuzsanna Thurzó, who was 13 years younger than he (she was the widow of István Perényi). Thus, Zsuzsanna Thurzó was Krisztina’s sister-in-law.

112 Révayfalva, or Prékopa by its Slovak name, is today part of the city of Túrócszentmárton (today Martin, Slovakia). Near this, one finds Stubnyafürdő (today Turčianske Teplice, Slovakia), to which the author of the letter is referring.

113 Katica Thurzó, Imre Thurzó’s younger sister, was Krisztina’s sister-in-law at the time (she herself was still unmarried). They were close in age, and Katica was a friend of Krisztina’s in the court in Biccse.

114 Krisztina Nyáry to Anna Telegdi. Biccse, May 29, 1619 (MNL OL, P 707, no. 9696).

115 On female authority acquired via the workings of female networks, see Herbert, Female Alliances, passim.

116 Pollock, “Rethinking Patriarchy.”



Loving Husbands, Caring Fathers, Glorious Ancestors: Male Family Roles in Early Modern Transylvania

Angelika Orgona
Hungarian National Museum
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 624-649 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.624

The study examines how a Transylvanian nobleman, Gáspár Kornis of Göncruszka (1641–1683), created a narrative concerning four generations of his family. Though in his memoir, a patrilineal lineage scheme dominates, a close reading of scattered family documents also provides insights into the practices of horizontal bonding among relatives. The letters and last wills reflect the life cycle changes and represent emotional relationships among family members. By considering the act of writing as an emotional practice, the essay tests the claims of the memoir with the help of other archival and extratextual sources. What were the narrated roles of heroized protagonists, and what were the everyday duties of noble heads of family in the early modern period? The study depicts the transformations of the family network during crisis situations in the Transylvanian Principality.

Keywords: male family roles, kinship networks, egodocument, generational memory, orphanhood, widowhood, seventeenth-century Transylvania

This study presents a case study of family roles for men in the early modern era, drawing on the example of one of the most prestigious families in the Principality of Transylvania, the Kornis family of Göncruszka. At the time when the Kornis family was prominent, strong, dominant heads of families controlled the family networks across Europe. However, the uniqueness of the history of the Kornis family lies not in the internal system of relations of the micro-community, but in the intricate web of the relationship between the family and historical background of the region. The family was pro-Habsburg and Catholic, so it maneuvered as part of a political and religious minority in a principality with a protestant majority which itself was balanced between the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires. The Kornis house had to endure a series of political attacks, exile, and imprisonment. In the first decade of the early seventeenth century, all the male members of the family were persecuted for political reasons; three of them—the father and two of his sons—fell victim to intrigues.

I interpret the family as a network of relatives and emotionally connected individuals who are able to function effectively for the benefit of family members through coordinated political and economic strategies. With the help of scarce sources scattered in the Kornis family’s preserved fond in Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca, Romania) and other family archives, I seek not only the answer to how men behaved as husbands and fathers and what tasks they performed as heads of families, but the case of the Kornis house also shows what happened to this individual family in the event of the murder of the head of the family and the loss of the property that would have ensured the physical survival of the family. How was the family network transformed with the loss or absence of the head of the family? Who would play the role of head of the family in such cases, and how? What kinds of bargaining processes, both in the language of power and emotions, accompanied this? What strategies, both usual and exceptional, did the head of the family use when the continuity of the lineage was compromised? These are among the questions to which I seek answers.

The Memoir of Gáspár Kornis: The “Ancestral Gallery” of the Patrilinear Line

In his short memoir, Gáspár Kornis of Göncruszka (1641–1683) presents the history of the Kornis house, beginning with his great-grandfather, also named Gáspár, and tracing the family through the patrilinear line.1 The term “house” in the language at the time referred to the clan, the consanguineous community of brothers from one male ancestor; in this ego document, the Transylvanian branch of the Kornis brothers, whose common ancestor was the great-grandfather.2 Gáspár Kornis emphasizes the public significance of the family in the portraits he offers of the heads of the families, while the microenvironments of the protagonists, the everyday family environment, the household (women and children, horizontal relationships), remain obscure. The memoir is a good example of the patriarchal family scheme, in which the head of the family is the dominant and representative member.3

Early modern patriarchal male identity was closely linked to the role of the family head.4 Gáspár Kornis put his thoughts on paper as the head of his family, keeping in mind its destiny as he envisioned it and the prosperity of his descendants. The creation of the work written between 1678 and 1683 was given concrete relevance by the positive and negative changes that took place in his private life. It was a joyous event for him that, having been widowed after his previous long, childless marriage, he now had children from his second marriage.5 The author’s social place corresponded to the dominant model of male identity at the time: mature adult, husband, father, and member of the social elite. Gáspár Kornis offered a narrative which dwelt on the alleged powers and responsibilities of his predecessors as heads of the family while at the same time legitimizing his own role and place. His intention to create a family of descent can be interpreted as a symbolic gesture. In the glorious “ancestral gallery” of its predecessors, he depicts heroes who had worked to the last drop for their nation and family. Miklós Esterházy also used visual depictions of his living and deceased family members in accordance with his intention to found a dynasty when laying the foundations for a family portrait gallery.6

Over the course of four generations, generational memory as an oral tradition fades as its pass away.7 By offering a narrative of the grandfather’s family past dating back to the time of his great-grandfather, Kornis’s work brought to life a collective memory tradition, a community of memory, which became an essential element of family identity after his death.8 The first figure summoned in his work is the founder of the Transylvanian branch of the noble family of the same name from Abaúj County, who raised the family to the top ranks of the Transylvanian elite. In the narrative from the elder Gáspár to the younger Gáspár, from great-grandfather to great-grandson, the intention seems to have been to draw a parallel: much as his ancestor had done through good marriages and skillful policies, by crafting a narrative of the family history, the narrator is at the service of the Kornis house and will become a paragon to his successors.

The Glorious Ancestor

The history of the Kornis family in Transylvania began with a good marriage. The nobleman of Abaúj County, the elder Gáspár Kornis (c. 1546–1601), married Ilona, the only daughter of and heiress to Imre Dolhay, the greatest landowner of Máramaros County (Maramureş, Romania). The advantageous marriage, combined with Gáspár’s talent, resulted in a brilliant career. As a prestigious landowner in Partium (a region in the Hungarian Kingdom to the immediate west of Transylvania), Gáspár became the lord lieutenant of Máramaros County, the captain of Huszt (today Khust, Ukraine) Castle, and a member of the princely council. Four girls and one boy were born to the first marriage who survived to adulthood. Two sons were born to his marriage to Erzsébet Tholdi of Bihar, who was a daughter of an old landowner family in Partium. Gáspár then became one of the largest landowners of Transylvania with his third marriage to Anna Horváth of Zaránd, the widow of Ferenc Geszthy, general of Transylvania.

Gáspár the Elder is the first hero of the memoir of the great-grandson of the same given name. According to the memoir, he “did a lot of memorable things for his homeland.” The text highlights only two things from his career: one was that he was Captain of the castle of Huszt, and the other was that, because of his diplomatic efforts, King Rudolph sent General Giorgio Basta to help against Michael the Brave, who ruled Transylvania.9 The latter is not correct. Michael, the voivode of Wallachia, who occupied Transylvania, sent Gáspar to the king in August 1600,10 but although the legation immediately preceded the battle at Miriszló (Mirăslău, Romania) on September 18, it had no causal connection with it.11 By the erroneous logic of the “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” Gáspár (the author of the memoir) presents his great-grandfather to his descendants as an ideal patriot who fought for his nation.

The other written sources on the role of Gáspár as head of the family help explain why his great-grandson called him “of blessed memory.” He chose a new homeland, thus opening a new Transylvanian branch in the line of the Kornis family. He thus gained a foothold in the principality and, as a consequence of the gratitude shown by the Báthory princes for the services he performed, he elevated his descendants from the nobility of Abaúj county to the Transylvanian elite. He based his family’s wellbeing on a considerable stock of possessions which he acquired partly through his services and partly through his marriages. He carefully laid down the order of inheritance for his sons and daughters by taking care to preclude any subsequent family strife or litigation. Following the political attitude of their father, Gáspár’s sons also inherited his court network. The great-grandfather gave his children a Catholic education and denominational guidance. His descendants became the pillars of the Catholic Church in the principality.12 As a family head, he also proactively organized his sons’ marriage strategy. As a result of the three marriages, the family’s network of relatives and the size of the estates concentrated in the hands of the family members increased, both in Transylvania and in the Kingdom of Hungary.

Gáspár became a supporter of the Viennese court who cherished the dream of the restoration of a unified Kingdom of Hungary, though he later fell victim to this allegiance. The mercenaries of the Romanian voivode Michael killed the pro-Habsburg Gáspár. Gáspár had thought the survival of the Transylvanian branch to be assured.13 He had no idea that two of his sons’ marriages would be childless, nor could he have known that the offspring of the third son would grow up without their father.

The Martyr Grandfather

After the great-grandfather, Boldizsár (c. 1577–1610), the senior son from the second marriage of the elder Gáspár, plays an important role in the memoir. Boldizsár married Katalin Keresztúry in the summer of 1600. Katalin was the only daughter of Kristóf Keresztúry, princely councilor and Captain of Kővár. According to contemporary reports, her dowry came to an impressive total of one hundred thousand forints. She inherited the Szentbenedek (Mănăstirea, Romania) Castle in Belső-Szolnok County, a famous specimen of Transylvanian Renaissance architecture.14 Unfortunately, the correspondence between the spouses did not survive. Thus, the two letters that Boldizsár wrote to his mother-in-law, Ilona Kőrösy, widow of Kristóf Keresztúry, are especially valuable.

Ilona Kőrösy took control of the estates after the death of her husband in 1599. She was also responsible for finding a husband for her only daughter. Boldizsár’s first letter, dated January 22, 1600, provides information on the latter subject.15 The letter concerns the organization of the proposal, possibly the engagement, which may have been linked to two events.16 The marriage has already been agreed on between the two parties, as the prospective husband uses the term “my well-wisher lady, my beloved mother.” The terms “my lady mother, my lord father” were the terms usually used by a man at the time when he wanted to address his spouse’s parents.17 With this intimate form of address, Boldizsár referred to his future mother-in-law and to the planned family relationship, and using the formulae of the day, he wished her a happy, long life “with all those whom she wishes.” The latter, enigmatic reference may even refer to the betrothed girl, about whom, apart from this, there is not a single word in the letter. In keeping with contemporary social norms, the text is limited to the practical details of the proposal. As usual, the groom would have set off accompanied by noble gentlemen, but they were unable to arrive at the agreed time, Tuesday, due to the prevailing conditions because of the war, so he asked the widow to wait until Sunday evening, together with the relatives who had gathered.

Although in the early modern era, the genres of fiction provided the most ample room for the expression of emotions, in this strictly practical text we observe figures of rhetoric which suggest a whole range of heightened emotions on the part of the young man. Primarily, he expresses his concern that he does not fulfill the bride’s family’s expectations, so the widow, he fears, will prejudice the bride against him or possible prompt her to change her mind: “Maybe Your Grace could judge me, or could say me a shaky man.” In his request, addressed nominally to the bride’s mother but actually to the entire family, he expresses the desire to get to know of his future relatives: “I desire above everything the acquaintance of their graces.” He uses exaggeration to emphasize his wish: “it’s imperative to wait for us, your grace,” “above all I beg your grace.” He assures his future mother-in-law of his commitment to her: “Whatever I could do, believe your grace that I would be your grace’s willing servant.” Last but not least, he expresses his feelings for the bride with the following metaphor: “God knows I would fly, if I could, which I know your grace also would believe.”18

After the assassination of Boldizsár’s father, Boldizsár took over as the head of the family. Although he was not the oldest brother, he still managed to expand his power horizontally. In the patriarchal family, the principle of seniority prevailed, but just as the firstborn was not distinguished in the inheritance of property, the principle of equal inheritance was followed according to the law, so in the transfer of authority, it was not only age that mattered, but also suitability for the position of leadership.19 In the present case, the sources do not permit us to draw a nuanced picture of the power and emotional relations between the brothers, but the relationships among them were marked by both the ability to unite and rivalry and jealousy.20

In Transylvania, the period marked by the rule of general Basta (from the summer of 1602 to the autumn of 1604) were calm, prosperous years for Boldizsár Kornis and his family. The head of the family became one of the most prominent politicians of the principality. He became the general of the Transylvanian armies and the lord lieutenant of Belső-Szolnok county. The short storm of this sunny period came in the spring of 1603, when Mózes Székely launched an attack. Boldizsár had his family flee to the castle in Görgény, and he himself, as the general of the country, confronted the claimant to the throne at Basta’s side. The other letter to his mother-in-law, which was written at the time, survived in the archives of the Kornis family. In the letter, Boldizsár, who was away and involved in the campaign, informed his mother-in-law, whom he addresses as “my lady my mother in love,” of his health and the military movements. The main motive for writing the letter seems to have been his concern for the fate of the goods and belongings evacuated from Transylvania. He shared his fears with Ilona Kőrösy, the head of the women’s household that remained at home, that if their belongings were taken out of the Szatmár (Satu Mare, Romania) castle, which was full of German guards, they would fall prey to robbing armies. As a good owner, Boldizsár even writes about the importance of ventilation in the spring and cleaning the clothes stored in the chest: “The clothes are now all blown by the wind, we clean them and don them on Monday, no damage has been put them up yet.”21

During the Bocskai uprising (1604–1605), Boldizsár lived in exile in Prague, away from his family, as a political refugee. During his absence, he took care of his loved ones by assigning a reliable male supporter to his mother’s household in the person of Zsigmond Sarmasághy, a Catholic nobleman who was involved in family communication.22 The relationship between the widow and the friend reflects the dynamics of male-female cooperation. The good friend managed property matters, and he reassured the worried woman that the passing army had done little damage to the vineyard and that the crops had already been harvested. During his stay in Kolozsvár, he collected information about István Bocskai’s plans and the movement of the troops, and he reported on all this in detail.

From a decade of marriage between Boldizsár and Katalin, only the letters described above, addressed to Ilona Kőrösy (the mother-in-low), have survived. Unfortunately, we do not have direct data on the age of the wife, but we assume that, like aristocratic coevals, Katalin married at the age of 14 or 15, so she was young and inexperienced.23 Because of the burden of expecting and having children, it was not she but her mother who was at the top of the hierarchy in the home. Because of her age and her authority, Ilona Kőrösy was, presumably, the one who set the direction for the days, helping her son-in-law manage the home and the estate.

Although it was completely common for the aristocrat husbands in the early modern era to be at home relatively infrequently, as a head of the family, Boldizsár may have felt excluded when his wife had a child in the autumn of 1604 and he didn’t remain at home and couldn’t see the child.24 The existence of several children who survived to adulthood is indicated by the charter received from King Rudolph in 1606 in recognition of his services to the Holy Crown, his captivity, and his exile.25

After several months of absence, Boldizsár returned home to his family in the summer of 1606 with an amnesty granted in accordance with the treaty of Vienna. Giovanni Argenti, the Jesuit rector of Kolozsvár, who himself had been expelled from Transylvania, captured the scene of family reunification that took place in Nagybánya (today Baia Mare, Romania): the husband, wife and mother-in-law celebrated the reunion with holy communion.26 Once the fate of the family seemed to be consolidated, we have gaps in knowledge about the birth of three children. We know from a later source, the statement made by Katalin Keresztúry (Boldizsár’s widow) in 1612 in front of the Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia) chapter, that Ferenc was born around 1607 and István was born in 1609.27 Boldizsár’s third child, Borbála, was born at the end of 1610, but by this time, Boldizsár had already been killed. In 1610, together with his half-brother György, he became involved in a conspiracy against Prince Gábor Báthory. During a raid in Szék (today Sic, Romania) on the night of March 24, the prince’s men killed György and wounded and captured Boldizsár, who was beheaded in Kolozsvár six months later, in early July, after having confessed under torture.28 The event came to be known as “the assassination in Szék.” As noted above, Boldizsár’s daughter Borbála was born after he had been executed. In a petition to King Matthias II in 1614, Katalin referred to her as a “filia posthuma.”29

Although the cause of the conflict between the prince and his Catholic councilors was primarily of a sectarian and political nature, it has been narrated in historical memory as the “conspiracy of cuckold husbands.”30 According to this story of jealousy, which spread later through the chronicles, on his way to the diet in Beszterce (today Bistriţa, Romania), the prince visited Boldizsár’s castle in Radnót (today Iernut, Romania), where Boldizsár’’s beautiful wife caught his eye. In the absence of direct evidence, unfortunately, it is not known how much truth there is in the story. Sources left by family members immediately after the events explain the conflict for political and confessional reasons.31

The story of the cuckolded husband appeared decades later in generational memory. The prominent figure in the memoir by the younger Gáspár Kornis is the grandfather, Boldizsár, around whom the author constructs a martyr’s story: the hero fights for his family and for his country, fails, and is killed. In telling the story of Boldizsár, the memoir remains quiet on the confessional and political causes of the conflict, explaining what happened to the husband as the consequence of his righteous commitment to protecting his family and himself. According to this interpretation, the person of the grandfather does not appear as a fallen, executed politician, but as a hero, a martyr who defended his family and country. Later, it is also clear from the text that the property which was confiscated from Boldizsár would be recovered by the Kornis family, which would continue to flourish through the Boldizsár’s descendants and preserve the glorious memory of its ancestor. On the other hand, Boldizsár’s opponents (the prince and his evil advisers) die as a consequence of divine justice. Their riches are scattered, and nothing is left of them apart from the memory of their treachery. The crime committed against the grandparents’ house and the family honor is characterized in the memoir as a grave sin against both divine and human law, and this characterization thus explains why the grandfather (Boldizsár) would have been justified in being part of a conspiracy against the prince and thus also preserve the reputation of the family.

With the death of Boldizsár, Katalin was left a pregnant widow with two little boys. Earlier, her mother, Ilona Kőrösy, had provided support during her son-in-law’s absence, but the situation had changed. Katalin had to take care of her old, sick mother, and she became the head of the family. The burden on Katalin was exacerbated by other circumstances: her husband’s execution involved the confiscation of properties, and Katalin’s own estates were also confiscated. This meant a complete economic collapse. The family had to flee Transylvania. Katalin’s brother-in-law, Zsigmond, who fortunately had not been present when the raid had been held in Szék, also fled to Hungary with his wife, Ilona Pálffy, on hearing the bad news.

The “Seedless” Uncle

The memoir of the younger Gárpár Kornis makes some mention of Zsigmond, Boldizsár’s younger brother. Zsigmond fled to Hungary after the assassination in Szék. Then, after Gábor Bethlen ascended to the throne in Transylvania, Zsigmond returned, as he had been granted an amnesty. The memoir mentions the “many glorious duties” Zsigmond fulfilled for his “sweet homeland,” for which he received, exceptionally, esteem and rewards from the princes, Gábor Bethlen and György I Rákóczi. He recovered the Kornis estates and acquired other properties. The memoir highlights Zsigmond’s important family role. As a “seedless man,” he left all his goods to his nephew, Ferenc, Boldizsár’s son.32 Zsigmond is the first figure of whom the narrator had personal memories and who could preserve and pass on the family tradition.

The Transylvanian branch of the Kornis family survived through the descendants of Boldizsár. There were no children from the marriages of his brothers. Zsigmond’s wife, Ilona Pálffy de Erdőd,33 struggled with a chronic disease, epilepsy, which prevented her from living the usual life of an aristocrat woman.34 She presumably spent most of her time in the castle in Papmező (today Câmpani de Pomezeu, Romania). The sources contain very little data concerning her life. Some letters to Zsigmond mention her: “I offer my services to my aunt.”35 When her husband mentions her in his letters, he almost always writes of her illness: “I would be as I would be, but my poor wife is still in that condition.”36 Although we do not have data indicating that she was ever expecting or gave birth to a child, she may have faced additional difficulties carrying a pregnancy due to her illness.

The head of the family was responsible for the posterity of the family name, so it is not surprising that Zsigmond struggled with the thought of his childless marriage.37 According to the traditional view, disease was a punishment from God. Zsigmond also regarded their situation as a punishment, and he referred to his wife’s condition as a “cross” and “God’s grave whip.”38 In his letters, he suggests that he viewed himself as the sinner on whom punishment was being visited, and he expresses a sense of guilt: “It is above all bitter that I have sinned and my beloved wife is whipped instead of me.”39 A passage from another letter suggests that he identified emotionally with his wife, who was experiencing mental and physical pain, a suffering he described as “so bitter that it surpassed death in many ways.”40

Pregnancy, especially in the first months, may increase the risk of epileptic seizures. Pregnancies, naturally associated with marriage, may have exacerbated the wife’s condition and increased the husband’s sense of guilt. Zsigmond nourished his hopes of having an heir for a long time. After caring for Ilona conscientiously and devotedly for four decades, he became a widower at the age of 57 and then considered his chances of remarriage. At the time, he no longer believed he had much chance of having offspring, but he was still tempted by an image of a caring wife who would tend to the tasks of his everyday life.41 Finally, he gave up the intention to remarry and devoted his attention to his brother’s orphaned children.

The strengthening of the relationship between the uncle and the nephews and niece naturally followed from the Zsigmond’s “seedlessness” and the fact that Boldizsár’s children were left half-orphans. The role of surrogate father strengthened the uncle’s place as head of the family, and his role as guardian promised additional financial benefits. In the summer of 1613, when he was still in exile in Hungary, he took responsibility for Boldizsár’s family and seized the right to control them and their properties. In the spring of 1614, after Prince Gábor Bethlen, hoping for political gain by winning the sympathies of the pro-Habsburg Catholic lord, had recalled Zsigmond to Transylvania, Zsigmond wrote a letter to the Transylvanian parliament in which he asked for the settlement of the situation of “my poor little uneducated, orphaned cousins, children of my poor lord, Boldizsár Kornis.”42

After the parliament abolished the proscription against the exiles, Zsigmond settled with his wife, his sister-in-law, and the three half-orphaned children on what had been Boldizsár’s estate in Radnót. The ambivalent relationship between the widow and her brother-in-law was reflected in the fact that the castle and estate in Radnót (the property of Boldizsár which had been confiscated) was acquired by Zsigmond not for Boldizsár’s children but for himself. Zsigmond did not completely exclude the widow and children, but in the absence of any legal foundation for a claim, Katalin could live “only thanks to the good will of Zsigmond, without any foundations.” 43 A conflict of interest developed between the two of them. Zsigmond sought to reclaim and unite all the confiscated Kornis estates in his hands, including the former possessions of his two dead brothers. He thus placed Boldizsár’s relatives in a vulnerable, dependent position. Between 1613 and 1616, there was a conflict between two families living under one roof, the widow and her brother-in-law.44 The widow, Katalin, submitted a claim to the Viennese court for funds for the maintenance of her children and the education of her two sons. She noted that she had “not a slip of land” in Transylvania. In her applications for assistance, she used the rhetoric one would expect of a widow. She emphasized her vulnerable position and the political loyalty her family had always shown: “Humillima orphana et perpetua Servitrix, Catharina Kereszthury Magnifici quondam Balthasaris Kornyss relicta vidua.”45

During these years, Zsigmond’s position in the principality was also precarious. In 1616, as a result of a temporary loss of favor, he lost Radnót. Prince Gábor Bethlen donated the castle to Chancellor Simon Péchy.46 The chancellor first offered money to the widow, who was a part-owner in Radnót, but Katalin, referring to her children, demanded not money but property in exchange for a share of Radnót.47 The following spring, she was given Szentbenedek, which had been confiscated, as well as several other of her husband’s confiscated properties, and she left Radnót with her children. In the meantime, her sons had already grown up. They had to be sent to a higher-level school, which meant financial hardship for the family.48

The tension between the widow and her brother-in-law was resolved by developing a new family strategy. As a result of the decision, which was presumably had been in the making for years, both parties were forced to make concessions in order to regain the economic and social influence and status of the Kornis house. Katalin Keresztúry did not remarry, leaving all the property she had inherited from her parents to her children. When her daughter turned eight years old, Katalin sent her to the Clarisses in Pozsony. Thus, Borbála did not have to be married, and her inheritance did not fall into the hands of a different family. Katalin also confirmed the children’s right to inherit by will, according to which all maternal property is divided into three parts, but if Borbála were to make an eternal vow of virginity at the age of fifteen, half of her inheritance would be given to the cloister and the other half to her brothers. Katalin Keresztúry also entered the convent, thus solving the problem of providing support for herself. To avoid further fragmentation of the estate, one of the boys was also assigned to pursue a career in the church after having completed his studies.49

The cloister helped Katalin remedy more than her financial problems, nor can one ignore spiritual motivations. Relatives who choose the church vocation, according to the Catholic conception, became “advocates” of family members before God, and they regularly prayed for the forgiveness of sins and for the spiritual salvation of their living or deceased relatives.50 Last but not least, within the walls of the distant cloister, along with her daughter, Katalin found peace of mind, as she was able to flee the rumors concerning her alleged disgraceful acts and the alleged illegitimate origins of her daughter.

According to the family strategy, the other important decision had to be made by Zsigmond, who had less and less hope of having children as long as he was at his ill wife’s side, so Boldizsár’s children were the only hope for the continuation of the Transylvanian branch of the Kornis family. However, it took Zsigmond a long time to come to regard his brother’s children not as rivals but as his own heirs. The bargain between the widow and her brother-in-law took place sometime between 1618 and 1624. In 1618, Katalin still regarded her brother-in-law as the usurper of her children’s paternal inheritance, so in her will, she prohibited him from looting them any further.51 In 1624, before she went to the cloister, she wrote another will according to which she made Zsigmond the “curator” and “defender” of the estates, alongside Prince Gábor Bethlen and Governor István Bethlen.52

In 1638, one year after the death of his wife, Zsigmond began writing his will, in which he named Boldizsár’s eldest son, Ferenc, as his main heir. Twenty years brought about a lot of changes in the relationship between the uncle and the half-orphans. Over the course of his long life, Zsigmond was able to follow the fates of his nephews and niece for a long time, so we can monitor changes in their relationships. Zsigmond supported Ferenc’s and István’s education at the Jesuit Academy of Nagyszombat (today Trnava, Slovakia), where they enrolled in 1618, and he also supported their studies at the Jesuit Academy of Vienna, where they enrolled in 1621.53 He made sure that they would come to the attention of important figures in the princely court, and various rites and ceremonies offered occasions for him to ensure that his nephews would begin to develop contacts in a social space that would be the backdrop of their later lives as adults. The two boys played an important role in the funeral of Princess Zsuzsanna Károlyi. Ferenc and István delivered an oration and elegy Latin in St. Michael’s Church in Gyulafehérvár (today Alba Iulia, Romania), next to the castrum doloris. Their participation as adolescents constituted a significant public appearance and also carried an important message: as a manner of Baroque theatricality, it reminded the participants of the princess’s deceased children, who would have been about the same age as the performers had they survived.54

The exchange of letters between Zsigmond and Borbála, Ferenc, and István was one of the most important means of communication. This is especially true for a nun living within the walls of a distant cloister in Pozsony. Borbála Konstancia (a name she acquired after becoming a nun) regularly corresponded with her brother, Ferenc, and her uncle, Zsigmond. After the death of her mother in 1629, the practice of sending letters remained her only link to her family.55 The letters replaced the experience of visiting one another, as indicated in one of her letters: “My Gracious Patron Lord and my sweet father […] I did not want to pass up the good opportunity to visit Your Greatness through this little humble writing of mine.”56 The letter writer’s own condition and the recipient’s health were constant elements of the letters. As was typical of letters written by members of the Church, Sister Konstancia’s letters began with an invocation (“Jesus Mary St. Clare”), and they also contained an indispensable intercessory prayer for family members. In an emotional letter written to her uncle just before his death, Borbála wrote the following: “I offer my poor humble divine prayer to Your Greatness as my Gracious Patron Lord, my Sweet Father. I wish from my pure heart to Your Greatness that God give you all blessed goods, good health, long life.” Her words reflect concern for the health of the elderly family member: “I have heard these days of the sickness of Your Greatness, which was not a small sorrow for me, therefore I prayed to my God to console your Greatness.” On the other hand, when talking about her own condition of health, illness, and near-death, she remarks almost indifferently, “I do not think I shall live long.” She refers to her uncle as her “patron” and her “father,” and she does professes affection for him: “I have no greater joy in the world than when I hear of Your Greatness being healthy and I take your kind letters from Your Greatness.” Unfortunately, Zsigmond’s letter to Borbála did not survive. In his will, he addressed her as “my poor nun sister, Madam Borbála Kornis.” He left her a hundred gold coins and three hundred forints and let the nuns pray for him in the cloister.57

We have only indirect data on the relationship between Zsigmond and his nephew, István, who was a Jesuit priest. Zsigmond was the chief patron of the Transylvanian Catholic Church, but if the stakes were to ensure succession and preserve the social status of the family, he quite certainly did not hesitate to subordinate the interests of the Church to the interests of the family. After the death of his wife Ilona, he tried to get his nephew out of the order, albeit unsuccessfully.58 In his will, he recalled his nephew: “I want to commemorate in this testament my beloved brother and both my carnal and spiritual kinsman, who, though the Lord God has chosen for himself and is anointed with priestly dignity, yet I want His Grace to benefit from the few goods that the Lord God has entrusted to me in this mundane existence. ” He left an estate for his nephew to support the Jesuit college in Szatmár.59 However, the young priest died sooner than his elderly patron. In 1642, Zsigmond hurried István’s sickbed. As he wrote in one of his letters, he hoped “before [my nephew] dies, [to] say a few words to the poor man, even if he is a priest, yet my kinsman.”60 István died less than a month later, and Zsigmond, unable to fulfill his promise in his will, made a donation to the Jesuits of Szatmár the following year. He stipulated that they be given a hundred forints a year, a hundred cubes of wheat, and a hundred cubes of wine.61

Undoubtedly, Zsigmond had the most personal, direct contact with Ferenc, who was a layman. After the death of his wife, Zsigmond declared in his testament that he considered his nephew to be his successor, heir, and the future head of the Kornis family. The will asks for God’s blessing on Ferenc’s life so that he may be of service to God, the Holy Catholic Church, and his sweet homeland. Zsigmond also prayed for the descendants of Ferenc and the survival of the Kornis house.

Zsigmond repeatedly reflected on his role as patron and head of the family. In his will, as if holding a mirror in front of himself, he apologized to his nephew, which as a kind of trope was a typical feature of the genre, and he admitted that for various reasons and shortcomings, he had been unable to help him as he would have liked, even though Ferenc’s love for him and his good behavior had deserved more reciprocity. For all this, however, he gave him ample compensation by making his nephew the heir of all his possessions.62 There are many examples of shows of care and love in the will. The function of testamentary writing was “the duty of love for those surviving” an emotional practice, and it addressed the need to ensure care for offspring. Zsigmond’s use of expressions for members of the family, to whom he referred as “my sweet cognates, the beloved who survive me,” also suggest that he had embraced the role of a kind of substitute father. He asks Prince György I Rákóczi and Princess Zsuzsanna Lorántffy to “defend and protect” his heir. The request has an extremely humble style: “very humbly begging for Your Majesty.” Zsigmond seeks to win the prince’s support by sharing his fears and worries about his nephew. He uses diminutive words about Ferenc: “my poor orphan and my very helpless brother,” although his nephew was an adult, a married man, and the lord lieutenant of Kolozs County. Zsigmond writes about Ferenc as if he were his son. As the son replaces the father after his death, so will Ferenc replace Zsigmond in the service of the prince: “Do not leave Ferenc Kornis, Your Majesty, whom I relinquish to Your Majesty instead of me.”

Zsigmond’s embrace of the role of the father and the willingness of the other members of the family to welcome him in this role can also be observed in the daily correspondence of the family members. Discussions of one another’s health constituted an indispensable part of the letters. Ferenc worried about Zsigmond’s health, and Zsigmond often worried about Ferenc’s health. Although he did not call Ferenc his son, Zsigmond did refer to Ferenc’s wife as his daughter-in-law, thus indicating that he either felt he was in or sought to suggest he was in an emotionally intimate relationship with his nephew’s wife, Katalin Wesselényi.63 Katalin, for her part, called her elderly relative “my father,”64 and she regularly inquired about his health. During visits, he often enjoyed Kata’s “housekeeping” and his hunting trips with Ferenc. The time they spent together also provided an opportunity for Zsigmond to develop a “grandfather” relationship with Ferenc’s children. He called the younger children “The Lady Her Grace’s cseléd,” a somewhat literary term for servant. He thus suggested that, at that age, the children were still attached primarily to their mother. Zsigmond also used their nicknames to refer to them (Boris, Kata, and Gazsi), which would also have been understood as an expression of affection. He referred to his nephew’s only son as the “little Gáspár hussar,”65 perhaps because he often let the little boy ride on his knees as if he were riding a horse.

Over time, he gradually went from being a caring head of the family to an increasingly old and sick person who needed the help and care of his nephew. The communication between the two of them also changed in light of this, with more and more talk about Zsigmond’s illness. For instance, in a letter written on May 6, 1642, he wrote of his own impending death:

I was so sick that I thought I was about to die, and I still wouldn’t mind if Your Grace were closer to me and your health were good, because I need Your Grace to take good care of me now, sweet brother, because it seems that I will soon embark on that very long journey, from whom the Lord God will protect Your Grace for a long time, Amen.66


Zsigmond Kornis died on November 6, 1648 in Radnót after long illness at the age of 70. In accordance with his will, he was buried next to his wife in the chapel of the castle in Papmező. After long preparations, his successor, Ferenc, who was raised by him like his own child, arranged the last rites for his uncle with great splendor. In the invitation to Zsigmond’s funeral, he referred to the deceased as “pater secundus,” i.e. as his second father.67


In this essay, I offered a case study of the male roles in a family network among the nobility in the early modern era, drawing on the example of the Kornis family. The head of the family, as the dominant and representative member of the family, had complex competences. As the head of the nuclear family, it was his duty to provide prestige, financial security, legal representation, confessional guidance, protection, and care for his wife and his children. Furthermore, it was his main, Christian duty to be a loving husband and a caring father.

As the head of the extended family, in addition providing legal-economic representation, he increased and maintained the prestige, wealth, and property of the family. All this could be achieved through skillful policies and advantageous marriages, so as a successfull head of a family, he built and transmitted an extensive network of kinship relations which helped further the social integration of his offspring and gave them the opportunity to choose appropriate spouses. Family peace and agreement was served by determining the order of inheritance. The rivalry between the brothers and the struggle for control of the dynasty weakened the members of the family, individually and collectively, so the family members sought compromise and cooperation as soon as possible.

The strength of the family as a community can be measured mostly in its responses to crisis situations. In these cases, the responsibility of the head of the family to develop a crisis strategy and effectively represent and enforce group interests increases. Therefore, the loss of the head of the family itself creates a particularly serious situation. In this case, the trauma and mourning had to be left behind, as the vacant position had to be filled in order for the family to survive. With the loss of the head of the family, widows were able to perform the duties of the head of the family within the patriarchal framework to a limited extent, sometimes through an accompanying male helper. Widows were compelled to rely primarily on members of their own birth families against the male relatives of their deceased husbands, and in the absence of help, they easily found themselves in a vulnerable, submissive position against their brothers-in-law.

Among the numerous critical periods in the history of the Kornis family of Göncruszka, the two most serious periods followed the loss of the two heads of the family, first Gáspár and, a decade later, Boldizsár. Both events plunged the family into existential insecurity: voluntary or legal exile, loss of property, followed by family fragmentation. In these crisis situations, the cohesive power of the Kornis house was shown. After the murder of Gáspár, his middle son, Boldizsár, and, after Boldizsár’s execution, Boldizsár’s younger brother, Zsigmond, took the baton. Initially, a conflict of interest arose between Boldizsár’s widow and Zsigmond over the right to supervise the orphans and their property. This conflict was later resolved by a compromise which benefited both parties. Zsigmond, who initially reclaimed the confiscated estates of his brothers, eventually made one of his nephews the heir to all his possessions. He was thereby able to play the roles of father and grandfather, which legitimized his position as the head of the family and which he would not otherwise have had as roles, due to the infertility of his marriage.

The career, destiny, and ability of a given family member sometimes helped the family’s strategy and sometimes worked against it.68 In the Kornis family, we see examples of both. The talent and good marriages of the heads of families played an important role in the rise of the family and its survival among the Transylvanian elite. At the same time, Boldizsár’s early death and György’s and Zsigmond’s childless marriages endangered the family’s survival. The Transylvanian branch of the Kornis family of Göncruszka was characterized by demographic weakness for three generations. Boldizsár had only one son, Ferenc, who remained a layman, and Ferenc’s only son to reach adulthood was the memoir-writer, Gáspár.

At the end of the seventeenth century, the younger Gáspár Kornis played the role of the head of the family with the act of writing memoirs. He characterized his ancestors as husbands and fathers who suffered as martyrs for the honor of their families and as patriots who worked for their nation to the last drop of their blood. The traumas suffered by the heads of the families because of their political views and their religion (traumas including attacks, assassinations, murders, exile, and execution) became the foundations of a collective identity. Faith, fidelity, suffering, and martyrdom became cultic threads of the family legend, enshrined as a tradition in the narrative of the memoir.

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1 ANR-DJC Family fond of Kornis de Göncruszka, inv. no. 131. Memoir of Gáspár Kornis. Editions: Szilágyi, “Kornis Gáspár”; Makkai, Haldokló Erdély, 199–215; Bitskey, Magyar emlékírók, 322–42. I used the original source in my study.

2 Fügedy, Az Elefánthyak, 21–25.

3 Werbőczy, Hármaskönyve, 1. rész 112. cím. 1. On the patriarchal family scheme, see Kaser, “Family”; Hendrix, “Masculinity”; Ozment, When Fathers Ruled. On the elder Gáspár and his sons, Boldizsár and Zsigmond, see Orgona, Unikornisok. On the memoir writer Gáspár, see Gábor, “Emlékezés”; Gábor, “Köszöntés a Krímből”; T. Orgona, “Csalárd mesterség.”

4 Shepard, “From Anxious Patriarchs.”

5 He married the daughter of Count István Csáky, the 15-year-old Mária Klára Csáky. ANR-DJC Kornis, inv. no. 131. Memoir of Gáspár Kornis, 21r−21v.; Bártfai Szabó, Oklevéltár, 615, 751–58.

6 Erdélyi, “Inheritance and Emotions.”

7 Following Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory, Jan Assmann coined the concept of communicative memory for the recent past, a typical variety of which is the generational memory of recent events, the memories of three to four generations. The memory of one generation adheres to the carrier group. It is created over time, and over time (more precisely, as those who bear is pass away), it fades, giving place to new carriers. Assmann, A kulturális emlékezet, 49−60, 133−46; Halbwachs et al., La mémoire collective, 143−92; Nora, Emlékezet és történelem között.

8 The philosophical-social-psychological concepts of memory and oblivion, historical knowledge, experience, and the ability to narrate traumas are also used in literary and historical studies. Kónya et al., Kollektív, társas, társadalmi; Balázs and Gábor, Emlékezet és devóció; Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt; Keszei and Bögre, Hely, identitás, emlékezet; Gyáni, A történelem mint emlék(mű).

9 ANR-DJC Kornis, inv. no. 131. Memoir of Gáspár Kornis, 13v.

10 Szádeczky, Erdély és Mihály vajda, 171−75.

11 Basta, united with the Transylvanians and won a victory against voivode Michael at Miriszló.

12 Bailey, “Transferring Family Values,” 174–98.

13 T. Orgona, Unikornisok, 104–15.

14 Radibrad Alvisi to Ungnad. In Alba Iulia, 31 July, 1600. Szádeczky, Erdély és Mihály vajda, 550; Horn et al., Politika és házasság, 192; Biró and Boros, Erdélyi katolikus nagyok, 28–31; Lázár, Erdély, 34.

15 Boldizsár Kornis to Ilona Kőrösy. In Radnót, January 22, 1600. ANR-DJC Colecţia generală

16 Weichart, Keresztelő, házasság és temetés, 14–30; Szabó, “Betrothal and Wedding.”

17 Jankovics and Kőszeghy, “Szeretők és házastársak.”

18 Boldizsár Kornis to Ilona Kőrösy. In Radnót, 22 January, 1600. ANR-DJC, Colecţia generală.

19 Erdélyi: “Inheritance and Emotions.”

20 The rivalry between György and Boldizsár is indicated by the missile in which the latter, as a member of the General Governing Council of Basta, who ruled Transylvania, asked Emperor Rudolf to exclude his half-brother from his paternal inheritance because he had sided with Bocskai, thereby sinning infidelity. (Request of Boldizsár Kornis to Emperor Rudolf, 17 August 1604. MTA KK Kornis II. 736–739.) However, the division between the half-brothers could only be temporary. As the property affairs between the three of them prove, they formed a strong community of interests and later acted together to achieve their common religional and political goals. See also Bastress-Dukehart: “Family, Property, and Feeling.”

21 Boldizsár Kornis to Ilona Kőrösy. In Rozsály, 23 May, 1603. ANR-DJC Kornis, inv. no. 250. no. 6.

22 Zsigmond Sarmasághy of Kövesd was a humanist Catholic clerk. Through his marriage to Borbála Füzy, the widow of István Jósika, who was related to the Báthory family, he acquired the right to manage the most important estate of the county of Torda and the title of Lord Lieutenant of Torda County. In 1604, he was arrested by general Basta on charges of promoting the principality of Gábor Bethlen. During his five-month captivity, Boldizsár Kornis was his main patron and the person who provided the most support for Sarmasághy’s wife in managing property issues. Sarmasághy was released from captivity with the help of Boldizsár Kornis. Sarmasághy sided with István Bocskai in October 1604, thus the Kornis family also found a helper on the enemy side. T. Orgona, Unikornisok, 129–30; Lázár, Erdély főispánjai, 109–12; Dáné, “A Torda vármegyei elit.”

23 Péter, Házasság, 56–58.

24 The letter of the imperial commissioner György Hoffmann to Ilona Kőrösi informed her of the birth of the child. Kolozsvár, November 1, 1604. Torma, “Okiratok,” 258–59.

25 King Rudolph I to Boldizsár Kornis. Prague, August 26, 1606. ANR-DJC Kornis 644. no. 4; MNL OL A 57 Libri regii, vol. V. 769–770. Published Szilágyi, Erdélyi Országgyűlési Emlékek, vol. 5, 425–27.

26 Giovanni Argenti: De Societate Jesu 1606. Balázs et al., Jezsuita okmánytár, 597.

27 Veress, A Göncz-Ruszkai Kornis család, 4.

28 Miklós Nyári to his mother, KatalinVárday. Rozgony (today Rozhanovce, Slovakia), July 10, 1610. MNL OL P 707 Zichy XXXII. no. 10709; Liber annalium raptim scriptus per Michaelem Veyss. Gross, Chroniken und Tagebücher, 218; “Mikó Ferenc emlékirata,” in Makkai, Bethlen Gábor, 42; “Segesvári Bálint krónikája,” in Szabó, Erdélyi Történelmi Adatok, 175; “Borsos Tamás emlékirata,” in Kemény and Nagyajtai, Erdélyország Történeti Tára, 38.

29 Katalin Keresztúry to Mathias II, April 10, 1614. MNL OL E 249 1614. no. 18. fol. 45. X 9229, microfilm no. 31491.

30 Horn, “Őnagysága merénylői”; Horn, “Báthory Gábor”; T. Orgona, Unikornisok, 150–56.

31 Zsigmond Kornis to Bálint Lépes. Parnó (today Parchovany, Slovakia), October 11, 1610. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. fol. 866–869. Katalin Keresztúry’s request. ÖStA Finanz- und Hofkammerarchiv. Hoffinanz Ungarn r. Nr. 101. Konv. January 1612. fol. 41. Katalin Keresztúry’s will. Nagyszombat (today Trnava, Slovakia), January 31, 1618. MNL OL F1 Libri Regii vol. XII. 52–53b; MNL OL E 147 fasc. 1. fol. 60–61.

32 ANR-DJC Kornis, inv. no. 131. Memoir of Gáspár Kornis, 15r.

33 Ilona Pálffy de Erdőd (†1637) was István Pálffy’s daughter and Miklós Pálffy’s (1552–1600) niece.

34 Gábor Perneszy to Zsigmond Forgách, July 22–23, 1616. Szilágyi, Erdélyi Országgyűlési Emlékek, vol. 7, 370.

35 Pál Pálffy to Zsigmond Kornis, Pozsony, November 7, 1635. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. fol. 1245.

36 Zsigmond Kornis to Pál Bornemisza. Deszni (today Dezna, Romania), September 14, 1635. MNL OL R 210 item 5. no. 170.

37 Oren-Magidor, Infertility; Péter, “A gyermekek,” 19–20.

38 In her will, Katalin Széchy also uses the terms “whip of God” and “cross” as an explanation for her husband’s infertility. Horn, “Nemesasszonyok,” 325–46.

39 Zsigmond Kornis to Pál Bornemisza, Papmező, August 25, 1627. ANR-DJC Colecţia József Kemény, no. 1019.

40 Zsigmond Kornis to György Apafi, Belényes (today Beiuş, Romania), August 11, 1633. ANR-DJC Colecţia József Kemény, no. 1018.

41 István Bethlen to Zsigmond Kornis, Huszt, March 6, 1638. MNL OL, F 12, fasc. 9. no. 6.; Zsigmond Kornis to Pál Bornemisza, Deszni, October 17, 1638. ANR-DJC Colecţia József Kemény, no. 1019.

42 Zsigmond Kornis’s request. Gyulafehérvár, March 13, 1614. ANR-DJC Kornis, inv. no. 250. no. 3.

43 Zsigmond Kornis to Kristóf Borbély. Radnót, May 25, 1614. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 37. no. 1.; Simon Péchy to Katalin Keresztúry. Kolozsvár, December 2, 1616. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 37. no. 28.; Simon Péchy to Katalin Keresztúry, Várad (today Oradea, Romania), December 28, 1616. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 37. no. 31.

44 Gábor Bethlen to Katalin Keresztúry, Várad, December 28, 1616. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 250. no. 31.

45 MNL OL E 249 Benigna mandata 1614. no. 18. fol. 45-46. X9229 mf. 31491.

46 Gábor Bethlen to Katalin Keresztúry, Kolozsvár, December 2, 1616. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 37. no. 28.

47 Gábor Bethlen to Katalin Keresztúry, Várad, December 28, 1616. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 250. no. 31.

48 Kristóf Goda to Katalin Keresztúry, Nagyszombat, July 26, 1618. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. fol. 996–997.

49 Katalin Keresztúry’s will. Nagyszombat, January 31, 1618. It was confirmed by Gábor Bethlen on April 24, 1618. MNL OL F1 Libri Regii vol. XII. fol. 52–53.b.

50 The term comes from the Clarisse nun of Mária Franciska Csáky: “I remain an advocate of Your Graces before God.” Anna Franciska Csáky to Ferenc Kornis. Pozsony, November 11, 1653. MTA KK Kornis vol. III. fol. 1883.]

51 Katalin Keresztúry’s will. Nagyszombat, January 31, 1618. MNL OL F1 Libri Regii vol. XII. fol. 52–53.b.

52 Katalin Keresztúry’s will. July 8, 1624. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 234. no. 2.

53 Prorogatoria super omnibus causis Francisci Kornis de Ruszka, Viennae studiis operam dantis emanatae. Alba Iulia, July 22, 1628. ANR-DJC Kornis inv. no. 646. no. 5.

54 Mikó, “Mivel én is,” 17–18., 56; Szilágyi, Erdélyi országgyűlési emlékek, vol. 7, 10–14.

55 Katalin Kondé to Ferenc Kornis, Pozsony, September 15, 1629. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. 1078–1079.

56 Borbála Konstancia Kornis to Zsigmond Kornis. Pozsony, September 17, 1648. ANR-DJC Colecţia Sándor Mike no. 859; Borbála Konstancia Kornis to Ferenc Kornis. Pozsony, September 17, 1648. ANR-DJC Colecţia Sándor Mike no. 860; About the practice of letter writting: Erdélyi, “Akarnálak levelem által”; Erdélyi, “Stepfamily relationships”; Del Lungo Camiciotti, “Letters and letter writing.”

57 Zsigmond Kornis’s will. Papmező, February 2, 1641. MTA KK Kornis vol. III. fol. 1512–1520.

58 István Bethlen to Zsigmond Kornis. Huszt, February 14, 1638. MNL OL F 12 Lymbus fasc. 9. no. 4.

59 Zsigmond Kornis’s will. Papmező, February 2, 1641. MTA KK Kornis vol. III. fol. 1512–1520.

60 Zsigmond Kornis to Pál Bornemissza, Papmező, January 18, 1642. ANR-DJC Colecţia József Kemény, no. 1019.

61 Letter of donation from Zsigmond Kornis to the Jesuits of Szatmár (Satu Mare, Romania). Remetemező (today Pomi, Romania), June 25, 1643. MTA KK Kornis vol. III. fol. 1680.

62 Zsigmond Kornis’s will. Papmező, February 2, 1641. MTA KK Kornis vol. III. fol. 1512–1520.

63 Zsigmond Kornis to Ferenc Kornis, Belényes, May 6, 1642. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. fol. 1631.

64 Katalin Wesselényi to Ferenc Kornis, Szentbenedek (today Mănăstirea, Romania), March 3, 1644. ANR-DJC Kornis, Katalin Wesselényi’s letters to her husband. 1644–1649, no. 1–2.

65 Zsigmond Kornis to Ferenc Kornis, Belényes, May 6, 1642. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. fol. 1631.

66 Zsigmond Kornis to Ferenc Kornis. January 9, 1645. MTA KK Kornis vol. II. fol. 1743–1745.

67 Ferenc Kornis to Ádám Batthyány. Szentbenedek, May 8, 1649. MNL OL P 1314. Batthyány, X 27237, mf. 7435, no. 4852.

68 Zeller, “On the origins.”


* In my pursuit of the research on which this article is based, I enjoyed the support of the Bolyai Scholarship of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Momentum “Integrating Families” Research Group.


Friends or Enemies? Sisterhood in Nineteenth-Century Hungarian Novels and Diaries

Zsófia Kucserka
University of Pécs
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 650-666 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.650

The study examines two diaries, both written in Hungarian in the mid-nineteenth century by young female authors (Countess Anna Kornis and Antónia Kölcsey). The diaries are approached from the point of view of the interpretations of emotional bonds and relationship patterns offered by the two girls in their descriptions and portrayals of their relationships to their siblings. In the case of Anna Kornis’s diary, I focus on the narrative passages concerning her relationship with her sister. Antónia Kölcsey’s more conflict-ridden relationship with her brother is worth comparing with the relationship between the Kornis sisters. I examine the passages in the two diaries concerning sibling relationships against the backdrop of the paradigm shift familiar from the family history and emotional history secondary literature and the portrayals of sibling relationships in the novels of the period. What kinds of linguistic tools and rhetorical formulae were used to interpret and narrate the emotional content and dynamics of the sibling relationship?

Keywords: nineteenth-century siblinghood, sisterhood, family models, gender order, diaries and familial emotions

“There must be the sincerest friendship between siblings […]. Thus, love each other and be honest with each other and trusting.” (Antónia Kölcsey’s father, cited in her diary)1

The first chapter of The Baron’s Sons2 by nineteenth-century Hungarian novelist Mór Jókai is probably the most famous and best-known literary framing of changing family models, at least in Hungary. The novel has been required reading for high school students in Hungary since World War II, so most people in Hungary recall that in the chapter “Sixty minutes,” the dying Baron Baradlay, head of an old aristocrat family, has only one hour to make his last will and testament. His wife, the mother of the three Baradlay sons, also has only one hour to reach a difficult decision: will she fulfil her husband’s wishes? For the reader, the first chapter makes clear that in this fictional world, there are two divergent and even contradictory ideas of the family and ways of thinking about kinship and family relations. The Baron’s Sons thus offers a portrayal, if admittedly in a work of fiction, of different meanings and models of the family.

For the baron, family is defined by vertical aristocratic lineage and the dynastic order. According to this model, the roles of the family members are determined by age, and the first-born son (Ödön) is the exclusive heir. Before his death, the Baron decides the careers his sons will pursue. According to his testament, Ödön will be the exclusive heir of the family estate and the position of head of the estate, and Ödön will have to maintain the continuity of lineage. The two younger sons need only support and uphold the reputation of the Baradlay family. Therefore Richard, the second son, can easily be sacrificed on the battlefield: he is given the opportunity to die a heroic death in the forthcoming European wars and, by doing so, to further the fame of the family. The baron makes this explicit when dictating his will to his wife, Marie:

His fame shall cast its glory over us all. He must never marry: a wife would only be in his way. Let his part be to promote the fortunes of his brothers. What an excellent claim for their advancement would be the heroic death of their brother on the battle-field!3

Jenő, the youngest son, is the father’s favorite, but in vain, because in this traditional aristocratic family, emotions do not play a role. In fact, emotions are weaknesses which should be repressed and hidden:

My third and youngest son, Jenő, is my favourite; I don’t deny that I love him best of the three; but he will never know it. I have always treated him harshly, and you too must continue so to treat him.4


The idea of family for Baron Baradlay means the name and the family estate, and emotions do not matter. An individual’s place in the network of family member is defined by his or her role (function) in the maintenance of the family: “Three such strong supports—a diplomat, a soldier, and a high government official—will uphold and preserve the work of my hands.”5

Marie Baradlay (who becomes the baron’s widow after this momentous hour) thinks and feels differently about the family. The different between these two main characters of the novel (the baron and his wife) can be placed in several theoretical frameworks. Their debate can be interpreted as a struggle for rival political languages (the conservative and liberal political languages); or it can be interpreted as a generational conflict, in which the young generation of the Reform Era takes over power. The debate can also be written as a gender issue. In this case, the world of masculine, patriarchal, power is replaced by the world of feminine love. Mrs. Baradlay’s first act after the death of her husband is to allow and arrange a marriage for Ödön based on love, which is obviously contrary to the interests of the family (at least to the family as the baron understood it). All her further decisions and actions build a new kinship system, in which emotional ties like love and trust are the foundation of the family (instead of name, estate, and aristocratic lineage). In later chapters, the whole nation comes to espouse this community idea based on love and emotion.


“Ödön, brother,” he cried, “I pray you forgive me! Think of our mother, think of your wife and children!”

Ödön regarded him, unmoved. “I am thinking of my mother here,” said he, stamping with his foot on the ground, “and I shall defend my wife and children yonder,” pointing toward the fortress.”6


The community of the revolutionary nation is the “sibling archipelago,” a notion which the Baradlay sons seem to take quite literally and which they represent and enact metaphorically. As the plot of the novel unfolds, Marie Baradlay’s decisions and acts embody the liberal, national idea, the notion of a love based on marriage, and the horizontal family model founded on emotional bonds.7 In The Baron’s Sons, Marie Baradlay’s acts have an important role not only in the 1848–49 War of Independence but also in the nineteenth-century revolution of sentiments and the family history revolution too.

In the new horizontal family model on which the secondary literature in the study of the family has increasingly touched, the sibling bond becomes a decisive, paradigmatic relationship. An (idealized) sibling relationship based on mutual support, close emotional ties, and the notion of shared destiny becomes an essential element of the family model, the kinship model, and even the marital relationship model.8 In particular, the close emotional bond between siblings of the opposite sex is usually interpreted as being based on mutual support and relative equality, and as such is an early emotional pattern of a new type of (modern) emancipatory relationship.9

In the discussion below, I examine two diaries in Hungarian. Both texts were written in the mid-nineteenth century, and each was penned by a female author. The first was written by Countess Anna Kornis when she was 14 and then 15 years old. The second was written by Antónia Kölcsey, who began writing the diary when she was 17 and who was 22 when the last entry was written. I examine the diaries from the point of view of the interpretations of emotional bonds and relationship patterns offered by the two girls in their descriptions and portrayals of their relationships to their siblings. In the case of Anna Kornis’s diary, I focus on the narrative passages concerning her relationship with her sister, Klára Kornis, as the relationship between the two girls is one of the most important emotional topics in the diary. Antónia Kölcsey’s more conflict-ridden relationship with her brother, Gusztáv Kölcsey, is worth comparing from several perspectives with the relationship between the Kornis sisters. In the case of siblings of the opposite sex, one would expect less rivalry, since they would have been expected to play complementary rather than competing social roles, while in the case of same-sex siblings, one would expect (on the basis of literary narratives and commonplaces) more competition. In the case of these two diaries, however, one finds quite the opposite.

I examine the passages in the two diaries concerning sibling relationships against the backdrop of the paradigm shift familiar from the family history and emotional history secondary literature and the portrayals of sibling relationships in the novels of the period. Like Ruth Perry, I interpret both fictional, literary sources and autobiographical sources as texts which offer insights into the prevalent notions of the time.10 The texts, which obviously are premised on different relationships to “reality,” both offer impressions of what was considered conceivable about sibling relations in nineteenth-century Hungary. What might have been the expected or envisioned sibling relationship that one had to strive to cultivate or, perhaps, resist, or which was encumbered with expectations which were almost impossible to meet? What kinds of linguistic tools and rhetorical formulae were used to interpret and narrate the emotional content and dynamics of the sibling relationship?

The Great Ancestresses of the Family: Katalin Bethlen and Her Daughters

The notion of the family as a unit or institution based on intimate emotional bonds gradually gained ground at the time not only in the fictional worlds of literary texts or the households of bourgeois families. In her secret diary,11 the 14-year-old Anna Kornis gives family emotions a decisive role and significance in a manner that resembles the prominence these bonds are given in works of fiction. At the same time, unlike Marie Baradlay, Anna Kornis cannot really be accused of liberalism or of cherishing great admiration for the national cause. In the sober life of this rule-following girl, emotions are in no way a potentially disruptive force. Anna Kornis was born in May 1836 as the fourth child (and second daughter) of Countess Katalin Bethlen and Count Mihály Kornis. Her father died before she was born, so Miklós Bánffy, her mother’s second husband, became her stepfather. Two children were born to Katalin Bethlen’s second marriage. At the age of 14, Anna was admitted to the Vienna institute for girls, where she primarily studied modern languages, music, and painting. Her diary, which was found by Réka Vas, was written during the six months she spent at the institute.12 The institute had very few students, usually only three or four girls studied at the same time under the supervision of Madame Cavaliero (the preceptress), so one could contend that the institute itself created a kind of family environment. Anna very clearly expresses in her diary her respect and love for Madame Cavaliero, and they seem to have had an amicable relationship. Nonetheless, one of the recurring elements of the diary is Anna’s longing to be reunited with her mother and sister. For instance, she wrote the following in an entry from early October 1850:


I haven’t seen my mother and the others since yesterday, and today my heart already ached. Whenever I see none of my Clariss and my dear mother but for the shortest of time, I am dreary and distressed. I never stop thinking about them, and the difference between being at home and among strangers.13


In early November, she again wrote of this yearning: “Today, my heart was craving a friend, oh! Because I haven’t seen either my mother or Clariss. I was so unhappy today.”14 And towards the end of the month, she lamented, “I’m only happy when I can be with my mother, my siblings.”15

The entries in the diary cover a short period of five months from October 1, 1850, to February 17, 1851. Anna’s mother and sister Klara (to whom she refers as Clariss in the Diary) were also in Vienna until the beginning of December, at which point they moved to Pest. When her family members were in the city, Anna spent her Sundays (and several weekday afternoons and evenings) with her mother. As of December, however, only her brothers remained in Vienna. From then on, her diary entries suggest that she began to feel increasingly lonely. She was no longer able to enjoy the gatherings with her family members, which were important to her as sources of emotional comfort.

Anna’s mother and sister were the most important pillars of her emotional life. She turned to them with a powerful sense of attachment and love. In the smaller decisions (what kind of jewelry to wear, which theater to go to) and larger decisions (with whom to make friends, how eventually to get married) in her life, her mother and sister were always sources of support and guidance. There is no sign in her diary of any adolescent rebellion against the mother, nor is there any trace of rivalry with her sister. The three women were clearly bound by close emotional ties, and this found expression in the ways in which they lived their lives. A diary entry from early December suggests that the process of bidding farewell before separating was emotionally fraught for all of them: “My mother cried a great deal, Clariss too […]. After my mother left, I cried a lot.”16

The entries in the diary suggest that the female members of the family formed a kind of female inner circle within the family, whereas the brothers, the father, and the uncle (Katalin Bethlen’s brother, Domokos Bethlen) belonged to the outer circle. If one were to construct a model representing the family on the basis of the diary, the family members would form a planetary system with the mother (the sun) at the center. She organized the lives of her children, and she made smaller and larger decisions affecting the family. She also organized their daily lives and the family visits, and she managed the wider kinship ties and social relations. Klara, who was already engaged, was often at her side, so her marriage, which promised a great deal, was a top priority for the family during the months when Anna was keeping the diary. Klara and her mother were practically always together. Anna was the family member who was closest to them. Though she was physically at the girls’ institute (i.e. distant from the family’s everyday world), she was a member of the female inner circle, as shown by her attitude, her views, and her thoughts and emotions. This must have been one of the reasons why she found it so hard to be separated from her mother and sister, as she presumably felt that, within the family, she belonged at their side. The brothers were at a greater distance, though they were still on the horizon while Anna’s stepfather only rarely appeared.

When the boys visited Anna at the institute, this was a cause of great joy for her. She enjoyed their company and was pleased to be able to spend time with them. However, this was in no way an adequate substitute for the emotional closeness and intimacy she had with her mother and Klára. Of her relationships with her immediately family members, her relationship with her stepfather was the coldest and the most distant. Indeed, there is hardly any real mention of him as a father figure in the diary. There are only two references to him, one of which is one of the very few instances in the diary in which Anna writes in a discontented, critical tone:

My father! He cares nothing for what becomes of us, and Uncle Domokos, whom I adore, loves us, but he does nothing for us. Alas, my mother is the only one who loves us and who would sacrifice everything for us.17


In other words, in the diary entries, the stepfather is either distant (physically and emotionally) or he is painted in a negative light.

Model Patterns of Sisterhood

In the new horizontal family model familiar from the secondary literature (a model which, the scholarship tells us, began to emerge in the nineteenth century), sibling relationships begin to displace the parent-child (“descent”) relationships as the dominant bond within the family.18 According to David Warren Sabean (and other historians), an (idealized) sibling relationship based on mutual support, close emotional bonds, and a shared destiny also begins to become a dominant element of the family and kinship model and even the marital relationship model.19 At the same time, in the novels of the era, one finds memorable portrayals of relationships among siblings that are rich with rivalry and strife.20 If one were looking for sisters in works of literature who had close, trusting relationships, one would perhaps begin with the oeuvre of Jane Austen. Lizzy and Jane from Pride and Prejudice and Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility offer notable examples of depictions of solidarity between sisters. We find a less widely familiar (and much less emphatic) portrayal of this kind of relationship between sisters in a story by Jókai entitled A két menyasszony (The two brides), which is the first narrative in the collection entitled Csataképek a magyar szabadságharcból (Battle scenes from the Hungarian War of Independence). The story could be read as a kind of “sisters” version of The Baron’s Sons. Anikó és Rózsa, the two heroines of the narrative, are sisters who live in the city of Szolnok. They are eagerly waiting for their grooms to return. One of the two men is fighting as part of the Hungarian army, the other sides with the Habsburgs, and they almost kill each other in battle. The sibling bond between the two sisters, however, is far too strong for either of them to allow their grooms’ roles in the conflict to come between them:

It was a beautiful evening in spring. The sisters sat side by side at the window of their little chamber, silently watching the stars as they twinkled into light. Neither spoke, for each feared to grieve the other by expressing her hopes or fears; but their tears mingled as they sat clinging to one another, each pale face seeking comfort from the other—their hands clasped, and their hearts raised in prayer.

Tomorrow, one may return triumphant from the battle to lay his laurels at his bride’s feet. And the other—what may be his fate?21

Remaining consistently supportive of each other and always refraining from giving in to their personal desires and sentiments, Anikó and Rózsa manage to survive the upheavals of the revolution. In Jókai’s narrative, sisterly solidarity is stronger than romantic love or the two women’s emotional bonds to their grooms.

Anna Kornis’s sister Klára was two years older than she. In the winter of 1850–51 (in other words, when Anna was keeping her diary), Klára met Count Ede Károlyi, to whom she soon became engaged, and in March 1851, they were married. Thus, the (relatively short) period of the diary falls at an important time in the life of the family. For the mother and family, finding suitable spouses for daughters was a major task, much as, for the individual girl, the wedding (as the beginning of her married life) was a turning point which both offered clear proof of the prudent choices which had been made in the years leading up to it (i.e. had the girl been properly reared, had the family managed to build an adequate network of relationships which would enable their daughter to find an attractive suitor, had the family been able to rise in social status, etc.) and had a decisive impact on the years and decades to come. In this sense, the relatively brief period before a daughter was engaged and then leading up to her marriage was a critical stage in the life of the family. The most important task of a mother at the time was to ensure her daughters find suitable spouses, so a wedding was as important as an event for the mother as it was for the bride, whose life would then be largely determined by her husband and his family (and his family’s social status). The bride’s sister (in this case Anna Kornis) was indirectly affected by the family event: her older sister’s marriage could affect her chances of later marriage, and when the older sister left the household, her younger sister would then be in the closest position to the mother.

The entries in Anna Kornis’s diary suggest that, in the period following her engagement and leading up to her marriage, Klára had both her mother and her younger sister’s support. One has the impression, based on the entries, that they were close not simply as siblings but also as friends. The support they provided for each other was one of the most significant forces which helped them achieve their interests in the complex social constellation in which they lived. Anna seemed to hold her sister almost in wonder. She referred to her as the “angelic Clariss,” who “was really made for a prince,” as she was

beautiful like a Venus, dear like an angel, innocent like a lamb, her heart free from all intriguing envy, she is also full of wit. I should not praise my sister like this, but I do not praise, I merely express what my heart feels.22


One may have the impression at first, upon reading the diary, that the relationship between the two sisters was asymmetrical, and while Anna adored her older sister Klára, Klára was less enamored of Anna. However, the last few entries in the diary indicate that both sisters were equally adoring of each other. For Klára, Anna was the most important source of guidance and comfort, after their mother. The diary includes a letter written by Klára to Anna about her engagement:

My dearest Anna, my beloved sister! Forgive me for writing so late, but as you can imagine, I have not been in a position, these days, when a decision over my fate is being made, to gather my thoughts. But the die is already cast, and I will be Countess Károlyi […] But Anna, my angelic sister, what do you think, am I to be happy or not? He is a very good man, he says he loves me, I love him too, and may God bless me and grant that it remain this way. […] Oh, my angelic sister, if only I could see you, but we too might go to Vienna for a few days to have my mother order what is most urgent, and then I will see you. Oh, I the mere thought of pressing you to my heart once again brings me such joy.

Who would have thought when I came here that I would be blessed by such good fortune. The wedding will be quick, already on the first day of March, […] and after a month of amusement, we will go to Paris and for a week to London. This is the plan so far. It seems like a dream to me, and I don’t even want to believe in so much happiness. […] Your old plan will also be fulfilled, namely, that you will go to England with an aunt, and a rich lord will marry you there. I will be that aunt.

My dear “Rámpirity” [a term of endearment used by Klára and Anna], will you still love me in the future? Write me, guide me, because that is what makes me happy. However, when I remember that I am leaving my mother and that the years of my merry maidenhood are over, then I still want to push away the time that will end my happiest minutes […] and then I become sad and want to die. My letter is handed over by Alexander Károlyi, a very good boy, and he wanted to meet you.

Eduard and I talked and resolved that should you leave Miss Cavaliero, then, my dear, you would come to me. Oh Anna, how happy I will be.

God bless you, and love your true sister!



The relationship between the sisters was a close friendship which rested on mutual trust and intensive contact based on close communication. The sisters formed a united front in which they moved in company, supporting and protecting each other and using their relationship as sisters to help each other assert and reach her interests. For women of their social status and age, the most important family (and personal) goal was to choose a suitable spouse, marry, and have a successful marriage. Works of literature offer narratives in which the pressures involved in achieving these goals found expression for the most part in sibling rivalry. One thinks, for instance, of Cinderella, whose stepsisters do everything they can to ensure that their stepsister will not be a rival to them. In Anna Kornis’s diary, we find an example of quite the opposite strategy to ensure social benefits. The sisters support each other in every way they can, using every possible tool at their disposal, the help each other find a suitable spouse. They cooperated not simply because they loved each other as sisters, but also because they knew that a success or social rise of any individual family member would benefit the whole family. The marriage of Klára Kornis created potentially advantageous social relationships for Anna as well, so not only would rivalry have had a negative emotional impact on girls, it also would have hurt them in their efforts to acquire social capital.

The women of the Kornis family shared close bonds within the family, helping and protecting one another and providing mutual support based on trust love. The diary entries suggest that Klára Kornis’s marriage, which was an immensely advantageous move for her individual and for her family members (since a count belonging to the Károlyi family was an excellent catch), also meant a painful rupture in the family for all three of them. Anna wrote of this on January 20, 1851:

I cried for a long time because I was reminded of the thought that had made me unhappy for a long time, that if I went home I would not be with my Clariss. Oh, whom I love so much, in a way beyond expression.24

In an entry written seven days later, she noted how difficult the impending change would be for her mother: “Parting from Clariss will be the saddest for my poor mother.”25 The entry contains a passage from the letter (cited earlier) from Klára to Anna, in which she writes of her anxieties concerning the upcoming marriage and the changes it will usher into their lives: “When I remember that I am leaving my mother and that the years of my merry maidenhood are over, then I want to push away the time that will end my happiest minutes […] and then I become sad and want to die.”26

Brother and Sister: Antónia Kölcsey and Gusztáv Kölcsey

Roughly a decade before Anna Kornis began keeping her diary (more precisely, between 1838 and 1844), Antónia Kölcsey, a girl of a similar age who belonged to the petty nobility, kept a diary herself. She was 17 years old when she wrote the first entry. She had just returned from the Tänzer Lilla school for girls in Pest-Buda to Szatmárcseke, the village of her birth. After having spent two years in the institute, Antónia lived in the village with her family. The small family consisted of four people who lived under one roof for the six years during which Antónia kept her diary: Antónia, her brother Gusztáv Kölcsey (or Guszti, to use his nickname, who was one year younger than she), and their parents.

The sibling relationship also figures prominently as an important bond in the network of relationships described in Antónia’s diary. The entries in Antónia’s diary suggest that the most significant emotional ties in her life included her almost fanatical respect for Miklós Wesselényi, the trusting relationships she had with her girlfriends, and her relationships with her closest family members. The impression of Antónia which emerges from the diary is of a well-behaved girl or young woman who strove in her relationships with others to meet expectations that were placed on women at the time. For example, she seems to have had a close and loving relationship with her mother, and if, from time to time, they came into conflict over something, Antónia always tried to patch things up as quickly as possible. She had great respect for her father. His views seem to have shaped her notions of acceptable social behavior and indeed to have exerted an influence on her behavior in all areas of life. Most of the time, she characterized her father as “wise,” and she relied on his guidance and advice. It is revealing, for instance, that when she writes about the ideal sibling relationship, she cites her father’s admonitions, for instance in the following entry:

My good father spoke thusly to my brother today: “There must be the sincerest friendship between siblings […]. I consider true, faithful friendship to be possible only between brothers and sisters. Thus, love each other and be honest with each other and trusting.” My father’s words are deeply moving to me, and Guszti and I promised each other to follow his words of advice.27

According to Antónia’s father, the sibling relationship was the purest, most sincere friendship possible. Antónia seems to have tried to live accordingly, always striving to cultivate precisely this kind of relationship with her brother.

Compared to the sibling relationship as portrayed in Anna Kornis’s diary, however, the relationship between Antónia and Gustáv seems far from symmetrical or balanced. The gender difference between them meant different opportunities and different living conditions for them. While Antónia was seen as having her proper place in the narrow space of the household and as having to learn, during the period of six years in which she kept the diary, the various tasks that would await her someday as a housewife, for her brother, the world was opening up. At least as far as Antónia’s diary entries suggest, she and Gusztáv seem to have had very similar early childhoods. They had an instructor who gave them lessons at home, together. But when Antónia finished the two years at the girls’ school in Pest-Buda, the gates of the world essentially slammed shut, and the narrow confines of the family household were the horizon of her existence. For Gusztáv, in contrast, the Debrecen college and institutional education were the first stages in a new life and the springboard which would launch him into the world. Antónia wrote of the sadness she felt when her brother left for Debrecen, but one could argue that there is a note, in her words, of curiosity concerning the opportunities that await Gusztáv, opportunities which she would not have:

Another parting, and it is a hard one, a bitter one! My only brother, Guszti, was taken by my parents to Debrecen today to continue his school career there. I parted from him with many tears, though I know that the separation will be good for him, that a boy must live in the noisy world, learn to know its people, survive difficulties and dangers, gain strength, courage, perseverance, and gather life wisdom in the big world, far from his father’s home and his mother’s breast, and his sibling’s arms.28

The different opportunities that Antónia and her brother had in life because of their genders were a recurring subject in her diary. She often reflected on how she, as a woman, had fewer opportunities and was compelled to move in a far narrower social space. She writes of this in a letter to Gusztáv:

The life of a boy is struggle, my dear Guszti. Far from the quiet walls of his father’s house, he gathers knowledge in the noisy world which someday he will use, and he gathers strength which will enable him bravely to weather the storms of life. But do not think, dear Guszti, that I pity you for your entrance into the world! 29


The gendered expectations placed on Antónia and Gusztáv also seem to have influenced the relationship between them. When Gusztáv left their parents’ home to begin his studies, Antónia wrote of the sadness she felt at having to bid her brother farewell, but she also wrote of the envy she felt, as he was able to explore the world while she had to content herself with the household tasks that awaited her as a woman.30

In her monograph on the English novel at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ruth Perry examines the various models of the relationship between siblings. She notes that the relationship between a brother and a sister (or in other words, between siblings of different genders) calls attention perhaps more clearly than anything else to the differences in the social roles assigned to women and men. After all, a boy and a girl growing up as part of the same family belonged to the same social class and moved in similar social milieus. Gender was the only social difference between them, and thus the relationship between them illustrates very vividly that the very different opportunities they had were due entirely to their social genders. As Perry writes,


The sister-brother relation thus foregrounded the difference that gender made in a person’s station and expectations in the world. Family, lineage, class, rank, and originating economic circumstances of brothers and sisters were constant—only gender varied. Siblings started off with the same genetic gift and the same class origins but ended up in very different circumstances owing to their different opportunities for advancement[.]31


Perry’s discussion of depictions of the sibling relationship in works of literature harmonizes with Antónia Kölcsey’s narrative of her experiences and perceptions as a woman in her diary. Her entries offer insights into the expectations placed on her as a sister, expectations which found detailed and unambiguous expression in her father’s words of advice and admonition and expectations which Anna strove to meet. At the same time, one discerns in the diary recurring expressions of envy for her brother, as well as frustration and discontent when she finds herself compelled to confront the ways in which, because of her gender, she must accept limitations and burdens that her brother is not expected to grapple with. She writes of this in one of her entries in comparatively unambiguous terms:

Is there any happiness greater than to cause others, many others, joy and to see how joyously they look back on us! The space is open to men, but not to us, we depend on others for everything, everything. They say we must do good in silence, without making demands, but how many times will good will, in undemanding silence, remain merely will!

What gloomy, cold, windy, and rainy weather! What a grim, bad mood I am in today!32


Antonia’s silent rebellion found expression in her diary in spite of the fact that, in her case, her diary was not a secret to those around her. At several points in the text, she points out that those around her knew that she was keeping a diary. Her quiet opposition to gender barriers and her envy for her brother’s social status were expressed in the diary despite the fact that these emotions and opinions were decidedly at odds with the emotions, behaviors, and views she was expected to embrace by those around her.



Anna Kornis’s and Antónia Kölcsey’s diaries are ego-documents which offer insights into the emotional worlds and family relationships of girls born into families in the nobility in the middle of the nineteenth century. One entry in Anna’s diary suggests that she regarded the diary almost as friend and confessor: “This book is my friend because I tell her all my secrets […] it is good to have someone with whom I can freely to share my thoughts.”33

Anna kept her diary in secret, so it is quite possible that the phrasing she used was less shaped by the expectations which were placed on her by those around her. This is true even if we bear in mind, of course, that even a source as apparently confessional as the diary does not reveal “the truth,” and diaries (like works of literature) are structured texts and not transparent sources. The two diaries discussed in this article support the notion found in the scholarship on family history of a turn: in both texts, the sibling relationship is clearly depicted as being important to the authors, a relationship based on love, emotional attachment, and closeness. They seem to consider a thriving relationship between siblings as something of ethical value. At the same time, the portrayals of the sibling relationship in both diaries offer touches of nuance to the prevailing image of nineteenth-century sibling relationships and the horizontal family model. One can hardly venture far-reaching general conclusions on the basis of two texts, but each of the two diaries suggests that the difference in gender created some tensions in the relationship between siblings, as this difference also meant different social opportunities, expectations, and limitations. In the case of siblings of the same gender, in contrast, the fact they had to meet the same expectations and grapple with the same burdens made them all the more supportive of each other and allowed a relationship to develop between them which was not marked by rivalry or envy.

Both Anna Kornis and Antónia Kölcsey were forced to cope with the pain of having to separate from their siblings, though the emphasis placed on this separation is quite different in the two texts. For Antónia, Gusztáv’s departure from their parents’ house was a loss which warned her of the limitations she faced because of her gender. In contrast, Klara’s marriage, although described in more emotional language and as a greater loss, put Anna in an advantageous position, as she was able to leave the girls’ institution and return to her mother’s side. Although Anna Kornis’s diary covers a very short period of time, what has survived of her correspondence34 confirms that she remained in close contact and close communication with her mother and her sister even after the two daughters had started their own families. Their relationship as sisters remained an important bond in later decades on which they drew when they needed support. Anna’s diary is therefore an important document not only from the perspective of everyday history in the nineteenth century, but also for the insights it offers into the meanings of sisterhood, understood both in a narrow and a broader sense.

Archival Sources

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [National Archives of Hungary] (MNL OL), Budapest

P 387. Károlyi Levéltár


Freyer, Darcy R. “Review of Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations, 1780–1920 by Leonore Davidoff and Siblings: Brothers and Sisters is American History by C. Dallett Hemphill.” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 6, no. 3 (2013): 523–27. doi: 10.1353/hcy.2013.0034.

Jókai, Maurus. The Baron’s Sons. London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., sa.

Jókai Mór. “The Two Brides.” In Hungarian Sketches in Peace and War, translated by Emeric Szabad, 213–35. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co., 1854.

Kornis, Anna. Napló [Diary] 1850–51. Manuscript. Biblioteca Centrală Universitară “Lucian Blaga” Cluj.

Kölcsey Antónia naplója. Edited by Júlia Gábor. Budapest: Magvető, 1982.

Perry, Ruth. Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748–1818. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Sabean, David Warren, and Christopher H. Johnson, eds. Sibling Relations and the Transformations of European Kinship, 1300–1900. New York–Oxford: Berghan Books, 2011.

Vas, Réka. “‘Meglehet, hogy rosszul gondolkozok a mostani világhoz képest.’ Gönczruszkai Kornis Anna grófnő naplója, 1850–51.” Aetas 27, no. 1 (2012): 125–35.

1 Kölcsey Antónia naplója, 16.

2 The full title of the English translation is The Baron’s Sons: A Romance of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. The Hungarian novel, A kőszívű ember fiai, was first published in installments in 1869 in the periodical A Hon (The Homeland). It was published as a novel in six volumes that year. The English translation was first published in 1900. It was translated by Percy Favor Bicknell.

3 Jókai, The Baron’s Sons, 8.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 9.

6 Ibid., 271.

7 On the notion that the new network of familial relationships played a major role in the process of nation building, see Sabean and Johnson, Sibling Relations, 15–16.

8 Ibid., 7–10.

9 Perry, Novel Relations, 145.

10 Ibid., 5–6.

11 The manuscript of the diary is held in the Special Collection of the Central University Library in Cluj under Ms.1862.

12 Vas, “Kornis Anna grófnő naplója,” 125–35.

13 Kornis, Anna, diary, 3 October, 1850, Biblioteca Centrală Universitară “Lucian Blaga” Cluj.

14 Ibid., 7 November, 1850.

15 Ibid., 29 November, 1850.

16 Ibid., 5 December, 1850.

17 Ibid, November 10, 1850.

18 Sabean and Johnson, Sibling Relations, 7–9. 14.

19 Ibid, 19.

20 One could note a relevant example from Jókai’s work. The character Alfonsine Plankenhorst subjects the character Edit to sophisticated forms of torture. As is the case in the secondary literature on the era, I use a broad interpretation of the term sibling. I use the term to denote not simply the relationship between people who were siblings by blood but also to refer to relationships among family members who were of the same generation and belonged to the same household. I am thinking of cousins and the halfsiblings who often lived in mosaic families. See Freyer, “Review,” 523.

21 Jókai, “The Two Brides,” 223–24.

22 Kornis, Anna, diary, 1 January, 1851, Biblioteca Centrală Universitară “Lucian Blaga” Cluj.

23 Ibid., 27 January, 1851.

24 Ibid., 20 January, 1851.

25 Ibid., 27 January, 1851.

26 Ibid.

27 Kölcsey Antónia naplója, 16.

28 Ibid., 28.

29 Ibid., 40. Emphasis added.

30 In another part of the diary, Antónia Kölcsey expresses her frustrations with and objections to the limited access women had to education and culture: “Many, especially men, think reading is harmful to women, as they think it will make them daydreamers and unable to sense what is going on around them. In truth, I cannot grasp what could be harmful about reading a good book which fills one with fervor and elevates the heart. Fervor and an elevated bosom, I feel, cannot give rise to anything bad, and with what great joy does one turn to one’s familiar tasks if one’s spirits are raised and one’s heart cheered. I once asked uncle Ferencz what he thought of women who love to read, and he replied, ‘women must learn a great deal, and one can learn the most by reading, and as they play a great role in raising and teaching man, indeed in teaching the folk; but as one of the most beautiful features in a woman is modesty, let them not wish to show their knowledge, but rather strive to use it in the quiet circles of the home.’” Kölcsey Antónia naplója, 17.

31 Perry, Novel Relations, 111.

32 Kölcsey Antónia naplója, 111.

33 Kornis, Anna, diary, 22 October, 1850, Biblioteca Centrală Universitară “Lucian Blaga” Cluj.

34 MNL OL, P 387.B.2.k.