Hungarian Holocaust Testimonies in Global Memory Frames: Digital Storytelling about “Change” and “Liberation”

Edit Jeges
Central European University
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 3  (2020): 452-469 DOI 10.38145/2020.3.452

This article provides a comparative and intersectional analysis of East-Central European Holocaust testimonies by women survivors narrated in writing at the time of the Shoah and recorded five decades later by the USC Shoah Institute’s Visual History Archive. The comparison explores both the continuities and changes particularly in the beginning and end of the persecution, which are usually associated with the terms “occupation” and “liberation.” I suggest that these conceptualizations prominent in the archive collide with survivor testimonies from the region in that survivors do not interpret Hitler’s rise to power and the German occupation as formative events of the persecution against the local Jewry. Further, I provide a typology of liberation narratives arguing for a multiplicity of interpretation based on survivor narratives countering the popular consensus of liberation as a carefree moment in time. Lastly, I conclude that the regional approach is particularly useful in understanding Holocaust memory in Hungary today as it is conducive to highlighting the specific relation of the global to the local.

Keywords: testimony, framing, East Central Europe, digital storytelling, intersectionality

This article explores the ways in which the global nature of the USC Shoah Institute’s Visual History Archive (further: VHA) shapes Holocaust testimonies. The thematic focus is the analysis of the intersection of global and local memory frames, which becomes manifest in the sections of the testimonies pertaining to the beginnings and the end of the Holocaust. I argue that the archive is unwelcoming to the marginal or even taboo narratives in the canonized memory and conducive to memorializing standardized narratives. Several memory frames collide and merge with one another in the digital testimonies: the “Americanizing”/personalizing1 and the “Germanizing”/denationalizing2 Holocaust interpretations, the interpretation of “invasion/occupation” and “liberation” in line with the local memory cultures, and the counter-narratives emphasizing continuities of persecution. Regarding the beginnings of the Holocaust, the testimonies analyzed in my research stress the continuities of local anti-Semitism or relativize persecution and thus contrast with the overarching interpretation offered by the VHA, which defines the beginning of the Holocaust as the single event of Hitler’s rise to power. Regarding the topic of liberation, I point out that the VHA’s conceptualization of liberation follows the common interpretation of liberation as a joyful moment, and this constitutes another contrast with narratives by survivors from East Central Europe.

Holocaust history has entered the “era of the witness,” and digital storytelling will influence Holocaust memory in decades to come.3 The process of the “institutionalization” of memory in the online archive involves an element of standardization, therefore it is imperative to analyze what memories are created and disseminated for future generations. The VHA is the primary global repository of Holocaust testimonies, with its 52,000 digital narratives, and its rationale has been the collection of authentic stories (with an emphasis on first-person accounts and, preferably, eye-witness testimony) for the public record (with the conceptualization of testimony as chronological sequence instead of associative process). It has been characterized as offering a “dichotomous view”4 as an “archive of survival”5 because of its focus on Jewish regeneration after the war, which has the overtones of a Hollywood-style happy ending.

I analyze the interaction between local and global memory frames (i.e. how women survivors with East Central European origins6 narrate their testimonies in an “American” archive) by considering these frames not as cultural opposites but as interdependent.7 As the nation-based interpretative framework would be anachronistic to the multiethnic communities of the region8 at the time of the genocide9 and the countries in the region are also similarly situated in terms of the legacy of the socialist memory cultures, I adopt a regional approach. In this analysis of narratives by women survivors, I analyze gender as a relevant vehicle of representation.10 The aim of my gendered Holocaust analysis will be to “interrogate its very assumptions.”11

In my dissertation research, I compare 25 pairs of testimonies by women survivors from East Central Europe written at the time of the Holocaust and then recorded five decades later by the VHA.12 My sample consists of what I term exemplary and unexemplary narratives taking into account the status of the hic et nunc and the video narratives. In doing so, I build on Noah Shenker’s categorization who identifies three types of testimonies in the VHA based on the archive’s internal ratings: exemplary testimonies are the ones deemed most dramatically compelling, unexemplary testimonies are considered the least compelling, and circulating testimonies are displayed in their educational materials to highlight the foundation’s mission. In my typology, the exemplary testimonies include those that became canonized both as written narratives (published and widely popularized in most cases) and as video testimonies (included in the VHA’s online selection13 and incorporated in their educational materials in most cases), whereas the unexemplary sources are the unknown written (unpublished diaries and memoirs collected as a consequence of local archival efforts14 in most cases) and the uncirculated video testimonies (sporadically indexed and in the local languages in most cases). In this article I discuss a section of my findings which focuses on twelve video testimonial narratives in detail, half of which are exemplary and the other half of which are unexemplary. The names of the witnesses in the case of the first six are Aranka S., Gerda K., Halina B., Jane L., Olga L., and Vladka M. The names of the witnesses in the case of the second six are Erzsébet G., Halina M., Lidia V., Margita S., Piroska D., Olga K. Half of the survivors self-identify as Hungarian (Aranka S., Erzsébet G., Lidia V., Olga K., Olga L., and Piroska D.).

I suggest that the VHA identifies the beginnings of persecution with change and characterizes the end of the Holocaust as spontaneous joy. The beginning of the Holocaust, according to this definition, is premised on the assumption of historical discontinuity. In other words, it is assumed that the survivors would narrate the beginning of persecution as a clean turning point. In the video testimonies analyzed in my research, this can either result in productive tension or interpretative conflict between the interviewers and interviewee survivors.

Narratives of the “Beginnings”

The VHA’s interpretation of the beginning of the Holocaust rests on a notion of abrupt change caused by Hitler’s rise to power. To quote the Foundation’s Interviewer Guidelines, “[t]he interviewee is asked to speak about his or her experiences under German occupation.”15 In other words, the central question of this thematic block is how Hitler’s rise to power affected the survivor’s life personally. This implies three thematic foci: the assumption of change, the centrality of personal experience, and the equation of the beginning of persecution with Hitler’s rise to power. According to my findings, however, these foci, as assumptions on the basis of which experiences are to be narrated, do not fit the narratives by survivors from the East Central European region for three reasons:

1) survivors narrate the persecution suffered during the Holocaust as a manifestation of the continuation or intensification of local anti-Semitism, and therefore not as a novelty or change;

2) survivors from the region do not narrate Hitler’s rise to power as a decisive moment or a turning point; rather, they narrate their experiences of persecution within local contexts;

3) the VHA’s focus on personal experience and more specifically on eye-witness recollection can be contrary to the survivors’ interpretations of persecution, which can be narrated within a collective, relational framework.

Variations on the questions and suggestions which present the beginning of the Holocaust as a moment of change include: “[w]hen was the big change in inverted commas,” (Lidia V., s.79), “[w]hen did things change,” (Mania G., s.20), and “[l]et us move to the first signs that there was danger ahead” (Halina N., s.34).16 In Helena M.’s video testimony, the interviewer asks about the change in attitude towards Jews in Poland. Helena is of the view that there was no such change. She replied, “the Poles have been anti-Semitic before,” and she considered the political changes as a continuation of general Polish attitudes rather than as a German influence, as reflected in her contention that “it has always been happening in Poland” (s.12). In Halina M.’s video testimony, in response to the interviewer’s question “[w]hen did the situation start to worsen for you,” the survivor explains that “it did not worsen at all,” given that she had had a very happy childhood up until the fall of 1939 (s.42). Although Helena M. and Halina M. have diametrically different messages for future generations (the former stresses the importance of tolerance and the fight against anti-Semitism, whereas the latter voices sentiments of religion-based Judeophobia when she blames the local Jewry for the Holocaust), neither of them follow the suggested narrative of historical discontinuity.

Variations on the question pertaining to Hitler’s role in the persecution of Jews include the following: “[h]ow did Hitler’s rise to power affect your life personally,” (Vladka M., s.4), “[w]hat things did you observe as Hitler rose to power in 1933,” (Gerda K., s.31), and “[h]ow was Hitler’s rise to power perceived in your community” (Halina K., s.30). These questions often lead to interpretative conflicts between the interviewers and survivors, which becomes evident in Vladka M.’s testimony. The thematic block dealing with her wareness of prewar anti-Semitism leads to a series of follow-up questions as to whether the subject of the discussion is conditions “before the war,” “before Hitler came to power,” “before Hitler came to Poland,” or, as the interviewer, insists “before Hitler became chancellor” (s.4–5). Vladka M. emphasizes that in her understanding, anti-Semitism is rooted in Polish society and the Catholic Church and was not a Nazi German specificity.

However, the interviewer, Renee F., continues to ask provocative (or leading) questions: “[H]ow do you explain that Poland was a stronghold of Jewish culture,” “[b]ut Jewish culture flourished in this country which was anti-Semitic,” and
“[s]o when did you begin to really feel the change” (s.6). Finally, in response to the last question, Vladka M. complies with the expectation to narrate a change in the persecution of Jews which was specifically linked to Hitler’s rise to power: “As soon as Hitler was settling in Germany, the stronger the anti-Semitism was felt and seen in Poland” (s. 6). Most of the survivor testimonies from East Central Europe analyzed in my research17 do not depict any connection between Hitler’s personal responsibility with and their the survivors’ Holocaust experiences.

Variations on the question emphasizing personal experience include
“[c]an you describe how external events started to impact your lives,” (Olga L., s.53), “[d]id you notice that trouble was looming, any signs,” (Dora S., s.12), and “[d]id you also sense that Jews were being persecuted” (Piroska D., s.94). Some responses to these questions point to the perceived continuity of local discrimination and anti-Semitism, for instance as Dora S. put it, “Jews could live but not thrive” (s.12). She narrates the intersection of gender-based and ethnicity-based discrimination in instances when “the Jewish girl could not be best student” (s.12). This meant that though she was the best student in class and even in the whole school, she was not recognized with any distinctions and instead the second-best gentile students received acclaim.

Other testimonies offer evasive responses, as the survivors refer to their gender, social status, or age as an explanation for their lack of awareness. For instance, in response to the question “[h]ow did Hitler’s rise to power affect your life personally,” Jane L. responds that “[i]t did not affect my life personally, in 1933 I was only 9 years old” (s. 28–29). Jane’s testimonial narrative about the prewar and wartime years focuses on her involvement in a youth organization, and her personal experiences are wrapped up in a relational framework. However, the interviewer’s questions, which are more tailored to the survivor’s experience (“[w]hat do you remember about the day your town was occupied” and
“[w]ho occupied it”), elicit the story of her personal experience of hiding in the nearby woods with her family, which is narrated as the first event pertaining to her Holocaust experience (s.31). The archive’s focus on personal experience is an effort to enhance the “authenticity” of the survivor testimony, yet personal experience is not necessarily central to the accounts given by East Central European women who survived the Holocaust.

Narratives of Liberation

The questions outlined in the Interviewer Guidelines18 pertaining to the topic of liberation focus on the day of liberation, the first day of being free, and often even more specifically on first catching sight of the liberators.19 I suggest that the VHA conceptualizes the topic of liberation as a “rapturous moment in time” (to borrow the phrase used by Dan Stone in his characterization of Red Army films and popular films like Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List),20 and, more specifically, as the single event defining the end of the Nazi genocide. However, survivors, and even in some cases interviewers, voice offer counter-narratives to this interpretation.21. I identify four frameworks of narrating for the narratives of liberation by the Red Army: sexual vulnerability, glossing over or elusion, continuation of persecution, and spontaneous joy.

The narrative framework of sexual vulnerability

The most prevalent narrative framework in the liberation narratives by East Central European Jewish women survivors is sexual vulnerability, the threat of sexual abuse or violence, evasion, and instances of liberator violence, although when it comes to this subject there is still a lacuna in the scholarship on liberation.22 I suggest that the narratives about sexual vulnerability are glossed over in the VHA’s video testimonies, which can be attributed to the institutionalization of Holocaust memory in the online archive.23 This means that the narratives of vulnerability appear either as matter-of-fact stories or as atypical short stories within the narrative style of the interviewees, the majority of which are not indexed as “sexual violence.”

Liberation in Lidia V.’s testimony appears in the context of sexual vulnerability. First, she quickly mentions the liberators as those whom they merely passed by. However, when she returns to the topic, her narrative style changes. She becomes hesitant, and the pace of her speech slows down as she narrates the following:


Lidia: On the following day [i.e. after liberation], as I told you, we met the Soviet soldiers. They were behaving [pause] fortunately [pause] very nicely with us. [Pauses and tilts her head]. They gave us food [pause] and in first days helped us get accommodation. It was not always easy, we could not always get accommodation. (s. 395)

Nina: When did you start going home?

Throughout the eight-hour long interview, the interviewer, Nina W., asks follow-up questions to the topics to which Lidia alludes, though she reverts to a question pertaining to chronology. This can be partly attributed to the fact that the VHA’s interviewers were instructed to devote approximately 25 percent of the length of an individual video testimony to the years after the war, i.e. beginning with liberation.24 Some suggest that as a consequence of this the VHA testimony is prone to become a more directed conversation, the interviewers ask increasingly polar questions (generally about marriages, children, and the rebuilding of lives).25 The fragmentariness of the narrative can also be attributed to what Pető terms “silence as the built-in element of narration”26 in interviews by victims of rape by Red Army soldiers. This appears in this narrative on two levels in that the story itself is interrupted by pauses and the “experience” of sexual vulnerability is glossed over.

The survivor Margita S.27 was interviewed by Robert S., whose interviewing presence is strong. He asks a variety of questions following the archive’s framing, the local context as well as his own conceptualizations.28 Due to his probing interviewing technique, two modes of narrative about liberation (spontaneous joy and sexual vulnerability) appear in the testimony. Regarding Margita’s liberation, he first asks a question following the archive’s focus on first-person experience: “[D]o you remember the first time you saw an American soldier?” She replies by narrating her spontaneous joyful reaction and starts recounting her journey home. As Neustadt-Glewe was liberated by more than one allied force, Robert S. raises other questions:


Robert: Were there differences between the liberators?

Margita: The Russians behaved very badly.

Robert: Did they steal from you?

Margita: No, they raped the girls in Neustadt-Glewe, so in one of the rooms we had to put a cupboard in front of the room so that they could not enter, but then they received an order that it is not allowed [...] they were afraid to come near us.

Robert: They were afraid?

Margita: Yes, yes, they were not allowed to enter our barracks. (s. 50)


The interviewer’s technique here is indicative of his previous knowledge or assumptions about certain characteristics of liberation by the Soviet army (i.e. his association of “bad behavior” with looting), and despite the fact that he is offering an interpretation of the events to the survivor, he is contributing to the unfolding of a narrative that otherwise might have remained untold. Margita’s story is a succinct one, in which she curiously alternates between the third-person plural and the first-person plural as a manner of distancing. Her use of the third-person and the first-person plural could be described as characteristic features of narratives of evasion, as they make a given experience seem either collective, not individual.29

Narratives of sexual vulnerability do not harmonize with the expectations of the agents who were crafting the archive, something that becomes especially pronounced in Olga L.’s testimony, which is highlighted with the indexing term “liberator sexual assault.”30 The interviewer, Nancy F., asks generic questions regarding liberation and freedom suggested by the Interviewer Guidelines, and in response, Olga narrates her experience of attempted sexual violence in a village near the Auschwitz camp by the Soviet liberators. The “troupe de choc” arrived in town during the night “in search of enemies” while Olga and her two friends were sleeping. One of the soldiers handcuffed and dragged Olga out to the courtyard with “evident motives.” They struggled, moving back and forth between the courtyard and the room, and eventually the soldier bit off Olga’s wristwatch and she fell into the cellar in the middle of some feathers and Polish locals who were hiding (s. 37). Despite the suggestiveness of Olga’s narrative (or maybe precisely because of it), Nancy F. focuses on the interrelation of freedom and liberation, as if insistently committed to the generic focus of the archive:


Nancy: When did you know that you were liberated, that you were really free?

Olga: Next day, because the Russian came and occupied the village and every woman who was in the village was violated and raped that night but bear in mind that troupe de choc it was not the real Russian army, I don’t want to defend them, but that is the fact. [...] A few days later I was called to Russian headquarters about this [pointing at her wrist]. He advised don’t complain about the Russian to the Russian, so I said this was an accident, how they treated me. [...] I went back and in this house, I had the first day of liberation.

Nancy: What did freedom mean to you?

Olga: [...] that I am not in the concentration camp [...] I had food, I had bread, it was paradise. (Italics mine, s. 38)

Olga speaks of sexual violence as an inevitability of war, though she also emphasizes the role of the army hierarchy in policing (and interpreting) these instances, as does Margita. She initially resists the interviewer’s attempt to frame her experience of liberation by narrating her meeting with a senior officer. Although the chronology of her story is askew, the significance of her narrative, from the perspective of this discussion, lies in her mention of sexual vulnerability as a determining experience of the “first day” of liberation. This echoes Levenkorn’s assertion that “for some Jewish women, the liberation began with rape by the liberators.”31 Olga uses her account of “the first day” to some extent in a metaphorical sense to represent her first moment of freedom, which is not identified as a moment of joy.

The narrative framework of the continuation of persecution

In these testimonies, liberation is narrated as a continuation of persecution in the widest sense of the term. Persecution continued, according to the narratives, in the form of discrimination against Jews, oppression by the liberating/invading Soviet Armed Forces, and the persecution of the nation. This narrative mode of liberation, which offers a counter-narrative to the VHA’s conceptualization of liberation, is particularly characteristic of the narratives by Polish survivors.32

Jane L.’s liberation narrative is a very special and rare testimony by a resistance fighter who smuggled Jews from Poland via Slovakia to Hungary. Jane and other members of her group were liberated by the Soviet partisans, who flew them to Moscow, where in the end she was sentenced to four years of forced labor in Siberia as a “dangerous element.” In her testimony, persecution continues even after liberation in that her Jewishness was questioned and ridiculed by the Soviet authorities who did not consider her Jewish because she did not know Yiddish (s.193–194).

In Halina M.’s33 testimony, when the interviewer asks about “future message,” she indicates that Polish anti-Semitism must be understood in the context of the isolation of Polish Jews, i.e. expressing traditional anti-Semitic sentiments and delineates two options for the Jewry: either assimilation or emigration (s.251). Furthermore, she stresses the continuity of the persecution of the Polish nation, first by the Nazi Germans and then by the invading Soviets. Thus, her narrative fits in (and strengthens) the framework of Polish national martyrology34 (s.249–250).

In the case of Olga K.’s testimony, the interview does not always follow a strict chronological order thanks to the interviewer, Anita Cs., who follows instead the survivor’s associative narrative style. In some instances, however, Anita introduces topics that have not yet been raised in the interview, for example when she asks whether some women were raped in the concentration camps (s.102), to which Olga responds in the negative, though she offers the following narrative pertaining to the period of liberation:


Olga: Violence happened when we were liberated two weeks later and we were taken to the Soviet zone 40 km away on trains […] and we were handed over to the Soviet soldiers. These things did happen there unfortunately, to young Jewish girls, to one or two of them, but there were people who saved them.

Anita: How did you spend your way home? (s.103–104)

Unfortunately, the interviewer does not follow up on the survivor’s fragmentary story in which the experience of sexual violence is merged with liberation, nor does she offer an open ended question along the lines of “what happened next?” Instead, she steers the narrative back into a chronological trajectory. As a result, not only is liberation not narrated as a specific and joyous event, it is not even discussed in detail in the testimonial narrative. Moreover, since Olga’s narrative of liberation is prompted by a question about sexual violence and is contains clear references to the threat of sexual violence, it might be suggested that liberation is narrated as a continuation of persecution in terms of sexual vulnerability in her testimony. Thereby, the continuation of persecution is premised on Jewish identity, national identity, and gender identity in the three testimonies analyzed above.

The narrative framework of glossing over

Narratives that do not offer a detailed account of liberation as an action initiated by external agents, i.e. the liberators, offer a variety of counter-narratives, starting from narratives of self-liberation, through quick allusions to liberation as part of a chronological recollection, and finally to the total omission of liberation as a specific event from the testimony. The variety of these narrative frameworks can partly be attributed to the different life trajectories and Holocaust experiences of the survivors, yet if we take the most extreme narrative type as an example, the omission of liberation, it cannot be said that there was a correlation between a lack of a historical event and its omission from the narrative. Instead, I suggest that the glossing over or outright omission of any references to liberation in its traditional understanding can be attributed to the recurring themes (such as Jewish resistance and sexual vulnerability) and, broadly speaking, to the Archive’s commitment to thematic coherency.

Lidia V. narrates the first day of freedom as a distinct and separate experience from the event of liberation. The first day of freedom for her was the day on which the camp administration fled the area. As Lidia puts it, “we were the conquerors of town” and “we didn’t need any liberator” (s. 391). She further develops her conceptualization of liberation by calling it “our self-liberation” (s. 392). This concept certainly acknowledges the agency of Jewish survivors in regaining their freedom by starting to organize life anew. According to the VHA’s interpretation “liberation is typically characterized by the arrival of Allied forces.”35 In Lidia’s atypical narrative, the first day of liberation included “self-liberation,” while the second day brought about the threat of sexual vulnerability, as discussed previously in this article.

In Vladka M.’s testimony, her involvement with Jewish organizations is the continuous thread which links the prewar, wartime, and postwar years. This is equally true of her narrative on liberation, which is part of a chronological recounting of events, an intermezzo before her involvement with the community continues. In particular, the liberation of Warsaw, her return to Warsaw, and her subsequent move to Łódź are all a matter-of-fact listing of events which culminate in her reuniting with the Jewish community and organizing the first events for survivors there (s.28–29). The interviewer, Renee F., does not raise any provocative questions in these segments of the interview, in contrast with their dialogue about the beginnings of persecution analyzed earlier in this article. Instead, she leaves space for the interviewee’s thematic focus. Thus, Vladka’s narrative points to the conceptualization of liberation as a process instead of a “rapturous moment in time” (to borrow Stone’s phrase again). As a result, liberation as an action by the Allied Forces is omitted from the testimony.

The return to the community in Aranka S.’s testimony is even more central to the narrative in which the traditional interpretation of liberation is similarly glossed over. After being liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she joined the men reciting the mourner’s Kaddish over the dead (s.34). In so doing, the survivor initiated a double border crossing: she returned to her Jewish community and crossed the gendered boundary to recite the prayer for the dead, from which women are traditionally excluded. At the same time, as Aranka was reciting the Kaddish literally over the heap of dead bodies, she tells of the “first sympathetic caress” by an American Jewish soldier, who put his arm around her in an effort to comfort her (s.35). Aranka’s narrative of liberation follows her interpretation of the events, in which the focus is on her symbolic reunion with the Jewish community and her processing of the loss of her loved ones, which is enabled by Leslie B. F.’s attentive interviewing practice.

The topic of liberation is entirely omitted from the discussion in Halina B.’s testimony, which is an out-of-the-ordinary narrative in that it was filmed on site instead of in Halina’s home, first at the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation and then in front of the entrance to the Auschwitz camp. The interviewer, Adelle Ch., draws attention to the extraordinary choice of location by asking Halina, “please [to] tell us why you chose this place so that there was a cross there, please tell us why that is so important now” (s.114). This question gives an opportunity for Halina to explain her message for future generations, after which she continues her short narrative about her time in Auschwitz, which comes to an abrupt end with her mention of the forced march (s.135). The interview ends with segments shot outside the camp. Any discussion of liberation is omitted from her testimony, which offers an alternative ending to the majority of testimonies recorded by the VHA.

The narrative framework of spontaneous joy

Associations of spontaneous joy with liberation appear in the testimonial narratives in three variants: joy as a stock-feature of the narrative, joy over the return to the (political or religious) community, and the joy of romantic love.36 Erzsébet G.’s narrative offers a perfect example of an expression of joy as a stock feature of an account of liberation. Erzsébet exclaims, “[t]hanks may be given to the liberators even after fifty years!” (s.91). This exclamation was part of her testimony written right after the war and part of what she read out loud during her video testimony.37

Joy over return to the community is often narrated by survivors who identified with communist ideals. However, their specific life trajectories color the narratives in that liberation as joy is narrated in a different way, for instance, by a communist Hungarian Jewish woman who was a concentration camp prisoner (Piroska D.) and by a communist Polish Jewish woman who was a partisan fighter during the Holocaust (Mania G.). In Piroska D.’s38 narrative, May 1 appears as a repeated reference: “So well it is 1st of May, I would not have thought I would be free then” (s.221). She associates this date, when the camp administration fled, with freedom. Liberation, strictly speaking, happened on May 2. Erzsébet offers the following description of her encounter with the Soviet liberators on this day: “There were three Russian soldiers and these skeletons jumped on them and started kissing them” (s.224). Thus Piroska’s narrative about liberation contains an expression of spontaneous joy, which, however, is not depicted as an apolitical feeling or as a genderless one, considering her references to International Workers’ Day (May 1) and the women survivors’ reaction when they caught sight of the liberators.

Only one survivor in my sample, Gerda K., offers in her narrative an expression of spontaneous joy at the sight of the liberators. Gerda claims to have met the love of her life that day She recounts that after having been told that the war was over, the next day she met two American Jewish soldiers. When one of these two soldiers held the door open for her and restored her humanity, this was “the greatest moment of my life” (s.116). Thus, Gerda’s narrative is compliant with the VHA’s intended focus on liberation as a joyous first meeting with the liberators and its emphasis on a happy rebuilding of life after the war.

In this article, I offered a “view from below” of the Hungarian Holocaust by examining narratives given by Jewish women survivors. I offer this discussion as a complement to the more prevalent areas of Holocaust research in Hungary, namely that of perpetrator history and the involvement or collaboration of the gentile population. Local and global memory frames meet, merge, and clash in survivor testimonies from the online digital archive that at best provides productive tension between the archival expectations and survivors’ testimonial narratives, and at worst results in interpretative conflict. The VHA’s volunteer interviewers were trained by the VHA in recording chronological life story interviews for historical and educational purposes, which in some cases resulted in their perseverance in asking questions closely following the archive’s interpretation of the Holocaust. In contrast, in other cases, they molded the Interviewer Guidelines to the specific survivor’s narratives and their styles. The emergence of alternative memories and counter-narratives is reliant on the dialogue with the interviewer and the “impact” of this dialogue on the testimonial narrative in the ways in which they approach the archive’s interpretation of the beginnings and the end of the Holocaust.

I argue that the VHA’s assumption about change, a turning point in the beginning of the Holocaust, rests on a thesis of historical discontinuity, which is a long debated topic in research on the relationships between anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. The account given by most of the survivors from East Central Europe whose testimonies are analyzed in this article do not fit this interpretative framework. Instead they constitute counter-narratives of the survivors’ experiences in the region. The narrative analysis of liberation may contribute to the bypassing of this interpretation inherited from the Cold War, a tradition which still affects Holocaust memory. This analysis offers alternative interpretations to the common understanding of liberation in several ways. In terms of agency, liberation can be conceptualized following survivors’ understanding of self-liberation instead of an action via external agents. In terms of temporality, liberation can be approached as a process instead of a “rapturous moment in time.” In terms of its emotive impact, liberation was remembered by some of the survivors as the continuation of persecution and sexual vulnerability, rather than as an event of spontaneous joy. Moreover, as the four narrative frameworks identified in this article intermingle in the testimonies, intersectionality as an analytical tool is especially useful in that the categories of Jewishness, gender, and political identification co-create Holocaust memory in the online archive.


Primary sources

Aranka S., Interview 8423. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Dora S., Interview 791. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Erzsébet G., Interview 50910. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 2000.

Gerda K., Interview 9725. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Halina B., Interview 702. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Halina K., Interview 25555. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.

Halina N., Interview 6258. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Halina M., Interview 23424. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.

Helena M., Interview 1797. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Mania G., Interview 14288. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.

Jane L., Interview 8508. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1995.

Lidia V., Interview 38936. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1997.

Margita S., Interview 23563. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.

Piroska D., Interview 50843. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 2000.

Olga K., Interview 50556. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1999.

Olga L., Interview 46138. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1998.

Vladka M., Interview 15197. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, University of Southern California, 1996.


Secondary literature

Bartov, Omer. “Eastern Europe as the Site of Genocide.” The Journal of Modern History 80, no. 3 (2008): 557–93. doi:10.1086/589591.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Leo Spitzer. “Testimonial Objects: Memory, Gender and Transmission.” Poetics Today 27, no. 2 (2006): 353–83. doi:10.1215/03335372-2005-008.

Johnson, Lonnie. Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Levenkorn, Noemi. “Death and the Maidens: ‘Prostitution,’ Rape and Sexual Slavery during World War II.” In Sexual Violence, edited by Sonja M. Hedgepeth, and Rochelle G. Saidel, 13–29. Chicago: Brandeis University Press, 2010.

Levy, Daniel, and Natan Sznaider. The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Mühlhauser, Regina. “The Historicity of Denial: Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the War of Annihilation, 1941–1945.” In Gendered Wars, Gendered Memories: Feminist Conversations on War, Genocide and Political Violence, edited by Ayse Gül Altinay, and Andrea Pető, 29–54. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Nutkiewicz, Michael. “Shame, Guilt, and Anguish in Holocaust Survivor Testimony.” The Oral History Review. 30, no. 1 (Winter–Spring, 2003): 1–22.

Orla-Bukowska, Annamaria. “New Threads on an Old Loom: National Memory and Social Identity in Postwar and Post-communist Poland.” In The politics of memory in postwar Europe, edited by Richard Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner, and Claudio Focu, 177–210. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Pető, Andrea. “Memory and the Narrative of Rape in Budapest and Vienna in 1945.” In Life after Death: Approaches to Cultural and Social History of Europe during the 1940s and 1950s, edited by Richard Bessel, and Dirk Schumann, 129–49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Pető, Andrea. “A Holokauszt digitalis emlékezete Magyarországon a VHA gyűjteményben” [The digital memory of the Holocaust in Hungary in the VHA collection]. In Holocaust in Hungary, edited by Randolph L. Braham, and András Kovács, 220–29. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016.

Pető, Andrea, Louise Hecht, and Karolina Krasuska. Women and the Holocaust: New Perspectives and Challenges. Warsaw: IBL PAN, 2015.

Shenker, Noah. Reframing Holocaust Testimony. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2015.

Stone, Dan. The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath. New York: Yale University Press, 2015.

Wieviorka, Annette. The Era of the Witness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Wolf, Diane L. “Holocaust Testimony: Producing Post-memories, Producing Identities.” In Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas, edited by Judith M. Gerson, Diane L. Wolf, 154–74. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Interviewer Guidelines of the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, 2012. http://dornsife.usc.edu/vhi/download/Interviewer_GuidelinesAugust10.pdf.

Wistrich, Robert. “Nationalism and Anti-semitism in Central and Eastern Europe today.” In Anti-semitism in Post-Totalitarian Europe, edited by Jan Hanul, and Michael Chase, 35–50. Prague: Franz Kafka Publishers, 1993.

1 According to the “Americanizing” interpretation, the focus of the survivor testimony is personal experience, i.e. witness testimony. Wieviorka, Era of Witness.

2 According to the “Germanizing” interpretation, the primary responsibility for the Holocaust lies with Nazi Germany and in particular with Hitler.

3 Pető, Digital Memory, 222.

4 Wolf, Holocaust Testimony, 174.

5 Wieviorka, Era of Witness, 115.

6 Translations of the video testimony excerpts from the original languages are mine, from Hungarian: Dora S., Erzsébet G., Piroska D., Olga K., Olga L.; from Polish: Halina B., Halina M.; from Slovak: Margita S. The other testimonies analyzed in this article were recorded in English.

7 Levy and Sznaider, Holocaust and Memory, 10.

8 East Central Europe is a dynamic historical concept. The exact understanding of the area as a geographical space is subject to change over time, suffice it to say that it more or less encompasses the current territories of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, excluding Germany and Austria. The elusive delineation of the region relies on certain criteria, as developed by Johnson, two of which I identify that specifically speak to the period of World War II: the experience of multiethnicity and the acceptance of Western Christianity.

9 Bartov, Eastern Europe as the Site.

10 Hirsch and Spitzer, Testimonial Objects, 368.

11 Peto et al., Women and Holocaust, 16.

12 This article presents a fraction of the findings from my dissertation research.

13 The VHA Online collection contains more than 3,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. The full collection can be viewed at access points all over the world.

14 This includes the Holocaust Memorial Center’s collection in Budapest and the Jewish Historical Institute’s (ŻIH) collection in Warsaw.

15 Interviewer Guidelines, 7. Emphases mine.

16 However, some interviewers did not refer to change in these segments of the testimonies. A notable example is Halina B.’s interviewer, Adelle Ch., who asks the following question instead: “[C]ould you please explain what the relations were between the Jews and the Catholics, that is the Poles?” (s.25).

17 The only survivor in my sample who expresses a connection with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 is Gerda K., whose native tongue is German, born in Bielitz/Bielsko-Biała (s.31). This may suggest that German-speaking survivors from East Central Europe constitute a specific sub-group in terms of their Holocaust narratives.

18 https://sfi.usc.edu/content/interviewer-guidelines.

19 In these segments of the interviews, questions about feelings are often asked, which is in contrast with the approach to emotions in the archive in that such questions are not recommended by the Interviewer Guidelines in general and are consequently rarely asked.

20 Stone, Liberation, 2.

21 Most of the survivors whose testimonies are analyzed in my research were liberated by the Red Army. Others were liberated by the British and US Armed Forces. Some camps were liberated by both armies, in which case I took into account both the survivor’s narratives and the archive’s documentation practices.

22 Stone, Liberation, 3.

23 Contrary to the prevalent assumption that survivors start to speak about their experiences of sexual vulnerability in their video testimonies, survivors who had been outspoken in their written testimonies at the time of the genocide were unwilling to discuss the topic in their video testimonies recorded in the 1990s. According to Nutkiewicz, the VHA’s leading historical consultant, it was possible to discuss sexual violence during the wartime years, however the topic eventually became traumatizing and taboo in Holocaust memory (Nutkiewicz, Shame).

24 Wolf, Holocaust Testimony, 170.

25 You can read more about this in Wolf, Holocaust Testimony.

26 Pető, Memory and Narrative.

27 Margita’s self-identification both prewar and postwar is complex. Several languages were spoken in her home, and thus she did not identify as specifically Hungarian or Slovak. She is a perfect example of the multi-ethnic self-identifications of East Central European Jewry at the time.

28 The interviewer first asks questions related to events in Germany: “[D]id your father follow what’s going on in Germany?, [d]id people talk about it?, [s]o you did not follow the political situation?” The interviewer then asks questions more focused on the local political context: “[a]fter the disappearance of the Slovak state, did things change for you, for example people’s attitudes” and “[d]id you personally see Masaryk” (s. 12–16).

29 Mühlhauser, Historicity of Denial, 36.

30 There are about 1,000 testimonies by Jewish survivors out of the 52,000 that contain indexing terms related to sexual violence, which include for instance “sexual assault” and “coerced sexual activities.” However, there are numerous instances when sexual vulnerability is discussed in the video testimony, but no such indexing term is applied.

31 Levenkorn, Death, 18.

32 This narrative framework of liberation was not characteristic of written testimonies, as the main motivation of the survivors was to inform the world about the genocide. These themes do appear elsewhere sporadically in the written autobiographical narratives, however, in the form of factual descriptions.

33 Halina M. was first persecuted as a Warsaw Jew during the time of ghettoization and, later, as a Polish resistance fighter in a POW camp. Polish self-identification characterizes other Jewish women who participated in the Polish resistance, for instance Halina K., though it is most pronounced in Halina M.’s case. Since she is identified as a Jewish survivor by the archive and this does not contradict her self-identification, I also consider her as such.

34 Orla and Bukowska, New Threads, 179.

35 https://sfi.usc.edu/content/liberation

36 Spontaneous joy over liberation as a narrative framework appears with the same intensity and in similar metaphors in the written testimonies from five decades earlier.

37 In this article there are two such testimonies by Margita S. And Erzsébet G. in which the survivors read excerpts from their written testimonies out loud. These testimonies which are indexed as “literary recital” in the VHA.

38 Piroska D. offers a rare combination of religious and political identification in her testimony. She considers herself a liberal Jew and a communist who was persecuted because of her political activities during the Holocaust. Indeed, she was incarcerated in Ravensbrück as a political prisoner. However, she is identified as a Jewish survivor by the VHA, and since this does not contradict her self-identification, I also consider her as such.


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

András Szécsényi
Corvinus University of Budapest
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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.


Negotiating Widowhood and Female Agency in Seventeenth-Century Hungary

Gabriella Erdélyi
Research Centre for the Humanities
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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


Balogh, Zsuzsánna. “Özvegység, újraházasodás és testvéri kapcsolatok egy 17. századi erdélyi nemesasszony levelezésében” [Widowhood, remarriage and sibling relations in the correspondence of a seventeenth--century noblewoman]. In Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon 1550–1940, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi, 227–46. Magyar Családtörténetek: Tanulmányok 5. Budapest: BTK, Történettudományi Intézet, 2020.

Benda, Kálmán, ed. Nyáry Pál és Várday Kata levelezése 1600–1607 [The correspondence of Pál Nyáry and Kata Várday, 1600–1607]. Debrecen: Kisvárdai Vármúzeum, 1975.

Berne, Eric. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relations. London: Andre Deutsch, 1965.

Bódai, Dalma. “Szülői szerepek és gondoskodás: Czobor Erzsébet mint anya és mostohaanya” [Parenting roles and caregiving: Erzsébet Czobor as mother and stepmother]. In Érzelmek és mostohák : Mozaikcsaládok a régi Magyarországon, 1500–1850, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi, 91–111. Budapest: BTK Történettudományi Intézet, 2019.

Broomhall, Susan, and Jacqueline Van Gent. Gender, Power and Identity in the Early Modern House of Orange-Nassau. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

Chabot, Isabelle. ‘‘Seconde nozze e identita materna nella Firenzae del tardo medieoevo”. In Tempi e spazi di vita femminile tra medioevo ed eta moderna, edited by Silvana Seidel Menchi, Anne Jacobson Schütte, and Thomas Kuehn, 493–523. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1999.

Duchonová, Diana. “Női családi szerepek: menyasszony, feleség, anya. A női kommunikáció színterei a nemesi családokban” [Familial roles of women: bride, wife, mother. The scenes of female communication in noble families]. In A női kommunikáció kultúrtörténete. Tanulmányok, 47–58. Budapest: Napvilág, 2019.

Duchoňová, Diana. Palatín Mikuláš Esterházy: Dvorská spoločnosť a aristokratická každodennosť. [Palatine Miklós Esterházy]. Veda, 2017.

Erdélyi, Gabriella. “Confessional identity and models of aristocratic conversion in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Hungary.” Social History 40 (2015): 473–96. doi:10.1080/03071022.2015.1080009.

Erdélyi, Gabriella, ed. Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon, 1550–1940 [Widows and orphans in Hungary, 1550–1940]. Magyar Családtörténetek: Tanulmányok 5. Budapest: BTK, Történettudományi Intézet 2020.

Erdélyi, Gabriella. “Stepfamily Relations in Autobiographical Writings from Seventeenth-Century Hungary.” In Stepfamilies in Europe, 1400–1800, edited by Lyndan Warner, 146–67. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

Forward, Susan, and Donna Frazier. Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You. New York: Harper Books, 1998.

Harris, Barbara J. English Aristocratic Women, 1450–1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Herbert, Amanda E. Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

Horn, Ildikó. “Nemesi árvák a kora újkorban” [Noble orphans in early modern Hungary]. In Gyermek a kora újkori Magyarországon, edited by Katalin Péter, 51–90. Budapest: MTA Történettudományi Intézet, 1996.

Ipolyi, Arnold. Bedegi Nyáry Krisztina, 1604–1641 [Krisztina Nyáry of Bedeg, 1604–1641]. Budapest: Franklin Társulat, 1887.

Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. “The ‘Cruel mother’: maternity, widowhood, and dowry in Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.” In Women, family, and ritual in Renaissance Italy, edited by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, 117–31. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Kubinyi, Miklós. Bethlenfalvi Gróf Thurzó Imre, 1598–1621 [Count Imre Thurzó of Bethlenfalva, 1598–1621]. Budapest: Franklin Társulat, 1888.

Merényi, Lajos. “Esterházy Miklós újabb levelei Nyáry Krisztinához. Első és második közlemény” [Letters of Miklós Esterházy to Krisztina Nyáry. First and second publications]. Történelmi Tár, no. 49 (1901): 354–86 and 481–512.

Pálffy, Géza. “A Thurzó család a Magyar Királyság arisztokráciájában” [The Thurzó family in the aristocracy of the Kingdom of Hungary]. Történelmi Szemle 53, no. 1 (2011): 63–84.

Peltonen, Matti. “Clues, Margins, and Monads: The Micro-Macro Link in Historical Research.” History and Theory 40, no. 3 (2001): 347–59.

Péter, Katalin. “Az asszony neve. Arisztokrata névhasználat a 16–17. századi Magyarországon” [The name of the woman: The usage of names among aristocrats in Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries]. Történelmi Szemle 52, no. 2 (2010): 151–87.

Pollock, Linda A. “Rethinking Patriarchy and the Family in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of Family History 23, no. 1 (1998): 3–27.

Ruppel, Sophie. Verbündete Rivalen: Geschwisterbeziehungen im Hochadel des 17. Jahrhunderts. Cologne–Weimar–Vienna: Böhlau, 2006.

Schneider, Gary. The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing In Early Modern England, 1500–1700. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.

Spieß, Karl-Heinz. Familie und Verwandtschaft im deutschen Hochadel des Spätmittelalters: 13. bis Anfang des 16. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2015.

Warner, Lyndan. “Conclusion. Continuity and change in stepfamily lives, 1400–1800.” In Stepfamilies in Europe, 1400–1800, edited by Lyndan Warner, 233–64. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.

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.”



The Stepfamily from Children’s Perspectives in Pest-Buda in the 1860s

Emese Gyimesi
Eötvös Loránd University
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 693-724 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.693


This paper examines the distinctive aspects of children’s letter-writing practices, sibling relationships, and the use of urban spaces by one of the most educated, intellectual stepfamilies in mid-nineteenth century Pest-Buda. In this bourgeois family, children grew up in an exceptionally rich intellectual atmosphere, as their mother (Júlia Szendrey) was a poet, writer and translator, their father (Árpád Horvát) was a historian, and one of their uncles (Pál Gyulai) was the most significant literary critic of the time. Consequently, reading and writing was a fun game and a source of joy for even the youngest members of the family. As a result, many of the analyzed sources were produced by children, offering us the exceptional possibility to examine stepfamily relations, emotional practices, urban and everyday life, as well as material culture from the perspective of children. The study aims to identify the practices through which the family experience and the family identity and the sense of belonging in the Szendrey-Horvát family were constructed.

Keywords: childhood, middle class household, parent-child relations, half-sibling relations, urban history, use of space, private and public spheres

On July 21, 1850, in the chapel of the parish of Lipótváros in Pest, a 21-year-old woman and a 30-year-old man were married. It turned out to be one of the most frequently mentioned marriages in nineteenth-century Hungary. The bride was Júlia Szendrey, the widow of Sándor Petőfi, who had been one of the most popular poets of the Reform Era and one of the most important figures in the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849. The groom was Árpád Horvát, a historian and professor at the University of Pest. Public opinion condemned the new marriage, though it was the only escape for the young widow.

Sándor Petőfi, the first husband, died on July 31, 1849, during the defeat of the Hungarian War of Independence in one of the last battles in Transylvania.1 His young widow was left alone with their child, who was seven months old at the time. As a result of the harassment she endured at the hands of the the Austrian authorities, the uncertainty of her financial background, and malicious rumors which had been spread about her, she was in a desperate situation in which she could not take on the role of “the widow of the nation” that the public wished to give the wives of martyrs who had fallen in the war of independence. Her contemporaries did not empathize with her demanding situation, and they condemned her decision to flee to a new marriage. Her figure is still surrounded by stereotypes. This also contributed to the fact that the documents concerning Júlia Szendrey’s second marriage and the majority of her literary works from the 1850s and 1860s remained unpublished.2 From a socio-historical point of view, given the abundance of relevant resources, this phase of her life is at least as exciting as the period connected to Petőfi, not only because her independent literary career unfolded during this period but also because she belonged to one of the most educated, intellectual stepfamilies of the era.

Júlia Szendrey took her 19-month-old son, Zoltán Petőfi, with her into the new marriage. She and her second husband, Árpád Horvát, had four children. Attila Horvát was born in 1851, Árpád in 1855, Viola, who died early, in 1857, and Ilona in 1859. In the resulting stepfamily, the children grew up in an exceptionally rich intellectual atmosphere, as their mother was a poet and writer, their father was a historian, and one of their uncles, Pál Gyulai, was the most significant literary critic of the time. Consequently, reading and writing was a fun game and a source of joy for even the youngest members of the family. As a result, plenty of relevant sources have survived from them, sources which are exciting not only because they concern or were created by the members of this special family, but also because the historian only rarely has, among her sources, writings which were created by children.3 The aim of the present study is to examine the distinctive aspects of the children’s perspectives, the sibling relationships, and the practices which influenced the formation of family identity through the correspondence and greeting poems of Júlia Szendrey’s sons and the floorplans made of their family home.

Children’s Perspectives in Historiography

Although the history of childhood has a significant body of secondary literature both internationally and in Hungary, analyses of the sources created by children and the special worldview manifested in them are relatively rare in the historiography. While researchers have shown an increasing interest in the study of children’s ego documents (such as children’s diaries written during the 1956 Revolution and World War II) about the politically significant events of the twentieth century,4 this aspect of research is strikingly missing in the nineteenth-century context. One factor in this is the shortcomings of the sources, or more precisely the failure to study the relevant sources. As a result, the history of childhood has been examined primarily on the basis of sources created by adults. The beginning of research on the subject is linked to the name Philippe Ariès, who claimed in his 1960 book that, before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the concept of childhood was unknown, children were not given particular attention, and the child-parent relationship was not characterized by sensitivity and a close bond of love.5 The hitherto unusual choice of topics inspired further research in this area, and several historians questioned Ariès’s thesis. Linda A. Pollock, for instance, sought to refute claims about the quality of the child-parent relationship by analyzing diaries, correspondence, and autobiographies.6 Barbara Hanawalt also argued persuasively that adults did indeed pay particular attention to people in different stages of human life (including childhood) even in the Middle Ages, and thus they recognized the importance of childhood and adolescence.7

Recent research deals with the emotional relationships not only between parents and children but also among siblings. The role of siblings in the wider kin networks has been taken for granted by historians for a long time, so it has only recently been made the subject of scholarly inquiry.8 Leonore Davidoff has pointed out that the sibling relationship is the longest and, therefore, in a sense, the defining relationship in a person’s life, as it can generate additional kin and kinship ties (e.g. aunts, uncles, cousins). In Davidoff’s concept the notion of the “long family” plays an important role which refers to the fact that in the Victorian era, exceptionally large families, often with more than ten children, were formed due to improved living standards and health care. Thus, there were at times very big age differences among siblings, as up to two or three decades could have passed between the birth of the first child and the birth of the last.9 Therefore, an intermediate generation was formed between the parents and the younger children, where the older children also functioned as caregivers, teachers, and playmates for the younger, and after the older siblings had married, their younger siblings, who had grown into teenagers, helped them raise their own children. Leonore Davidoff’s book focuses primarily on the history of English middle-class families between 1780 and 1920, but not exclusively. The chapter on the relationships within the Freud family is significant in Central European terms.10 Based on a number of cases and a rich array of sources, Davidoff found that childhood experience, sibling relationships, and the reflections of relatives could fundamentally determine the awareness of the child’s position in society and the quality of his or her political, social, and personal life, both in the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth.11

In Hungary, the study of childhood was undertaken mainly from an ethnographic point of view and also from the perspectives of child labor and the history of education.12 While the history of childhood may be of increasing interest to researchers as part of family history, in the context of the nineteenth century and earlier eras historians only rarely have sources written by children on which to draw, alongside the sources produced by adults (memoirs, autobiographies reflecting on childhood, and depictions of children in the printed press, fiction, and visual culture). Sources created by children are essential if we seek not simply to study childhood as it was understood by adults at the time but also from the viewpoints of children themselves.

Family history research has been inspired by an approach that perceives family not simply as a biologically based, timeless entity, but as a social construct that changes over time. In the present paper, I examine family relationships based on the children’s letter-writing practices, the use of the house by family members, and the use of space during their city walks. I aim to identify the practices through which the family experience and the family identity and the sense of belonging in the Szendrey-Horvát family were constructed. The correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children is an exciting source in terms of the characteristics of the nineteenth-century stepfamily, the history of emotions, urban history, everyday life, and material culture.13 In the period of roughly seven years when the letters were written (1861–1868), Zoltán Petőfi was between the ages of 13 and 20, Attila Horvát between 10 and 17 years old, and the youngest son, Árpád, between 6 and 13. Thus, we can see Pest-Buda from the perspective of young boys growing from children into adolescents.

The Family Home

In the first three years of their marriage, Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát lived in Lipót Street in the city center (on the southern section of today’s Váci Street). In 1853, they moved to the corner of Hársfa and Király Streets, which was located in former Terézváros in a part closer to City Park. (Although today this area belongs to Erzsébetváros, in the 1850s and 1860s it was part of Terézváros. Erzsébetváros was established only in 1882, when Franz Joseph allowed the 7th district to be separated from the former Terézváros to be named after his wife.) Hársfa Street served as the main area in which the family moved for 14 years, until 1867, when the parents separated.

We can learn the exact furnishing of the apartment and the division of the rooms from a special source. In 1869, Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát’s eldest child, Attila Horvát, made two detailed floorplans of the former family home and its surroundings. Their home in Hársfa Street did not exist any longer at that time, since in 1867, the family broke up. The parents never divorced officially, but from then on, they lived in separate households. Júlia Szendrey moved away from her husband with her daughter, Ilona, while the boys stayed with their father, Árpád Horvát. They sold their family home in Terézváros and rented a room in the city center. After suffering from uterine cancer for a long time, Júlia Szendrey died on September 6, 1868. The floorplans showing the interior design were thus made in the period following the breakup of the family and the death of the mother. One of them marks the location of the furnishing within each room, and the other shows the wider surroundings of the house and the various plants in the garden in greater detail. Attila Horvát also recorded the date of birth of his siblings, and he named each room on the floorplans from the child’s point of view (“Mom’s room, Dad’s room,” etc.). One can interpret this gesture, the creation of floorplans which record the furnishings and surroundings of the former family home with meticulous accuracy, as an expression of strong emotional attachment and the desire of the adolescent boy to preserve family memory.

According to the floorplans, the house consisted of the following rooms: entrance hall, small room, father’s room, mother’s room, children’s room, kitchen, the pantry, the lavatory, and the soldier’s room.14 The children’s room opened off the hall. The presence of a children’s room and the reference to this space as a children’s room were by no means part of an obvious, everyday phenomenon, as even in the housing inventories of later decades there were only rarely examples of a separate children’s room, even in cases in which the large number of rooms would have allowed it.15 The presence of the children’s room in the bourgeois apartments was not evident even at the beginning of the following century, although the need for such a space had been emphasized more and more by then. The research of Gábor Gyáni suggests that the placement of children in bourgeois flats was often complicated and involved the use of a single space for several purposes. The beds used by older children were sometimes placed in the dining room or another room, while younger children often slept in the bedroom with their parents.16 In contrast, the children’s room provided a separate space for the children of Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát, which was not only nominal.17 In addition to the floorplans, the correspondence between Attila Horvát and Zoltán Petőfi also proves that the children’s room provided them with a space where they could occasionally retreat from the adults.

The floorplan is a valuable source because it gives a list of its premises and furnishings and it shows their locations within the private spaces. On the basis of the interior design, one make hypotheses concerning the internal relations of the family, the roles of the men and the women, and the ways in which these roles in this family differed from social conventions. One can also venture conjectures concerning the functions of some spaces of the apartment and the relationship between the private space of the home and the public spaces of social life.

In the house of Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát, less emphasis was put on shows of wealth and status than in average bourgeois apartments, where usually the salon or drawing room was a space of particular importance; by contrast, in the Szendrey-Horvát family home, spaces for private, intellectual work were important. The salon, which was the most significant place in contemporary bourgeois homes as a space to welcome guests and meet social expectations, was missing from the house. The piano, which would usually have been placed in the salon as a status symbol, was in Júlia Szendrey’s room, which opened onto Hársfa Street.18 The lack of a salon and the furniture in the rooms also showed that the furnishings of the house were not intended primarily for the public, but rather for everyday, private use, tailored to individual needs, and this was unusual in the home of a relatively prosperous family at the time. Both the husband and the wife did intellectual and artist work, and both demanded the private space and furnishings required for this.

It is striking that the “gentleman’s room,” often referred to as the “men’s room,” was not exclusively a privilege of the husband in their case. According to the apartment inventories analyzed by Gyáni, this space usually functioned as the study of the paterfamilias and often as a library.19 A desk with chairs, a bookcase, and a sofa (an indispensable accessory of the “men’s room” in the later decades as well20) were found not only Árpád Horvát’s room but also in Júlia Szendrey’s room. This is also remarkable because the wife usually did not have her own room, even though it was a woman’s job to create the tasteful furnishings of the home.21 The presence of the necessary fixtures for artwork in Júlia Szendrey’s room draws attention to the fact that the female member of the family also carried out in-depth intellectual work and regular publishing activities. All this indicates not only the literacy of the resident of the room, whose daily cultural needs included regular reading and writing, but also that she had a separate room and its furnishings did not differ from the furnishings found in her husband’s room, and this was exceptional at the time. The furnishings played a prominent role in both rooms, and in its dimensions, Júlia Szendrey’s room was even larger than her husband’s.

The furnishings of Júlia Szendrey’s room combined the functions of a bedroom, a study, and a salon, although the boundaries of the spaces with different functions were delineated relatively well within the room. The curtain bed was located in the innermost part of the room; this point of the room constituted a private space. The most important element of the bourgeois apartment, a piano, was at the opposite side of the room in front of the window, on “display,” together with a rose bowl and a sofa. As a counterpoint to the private sphere, this part of the room overlooking the street was the space of representation in which objects indicated the wealth and social status of the family. The desk was around the middle forming a liminal space between the intimate, inner and the public, open parts of the room. Thus, Júlia Szendrey’s room performed the functions of the bedroom, the study, and the salon, though within the room itself the borders between spaces with different functions were relatively clear.

If one compares the wife’s and husband’s rooms, it is also striking that the former was more spacious and, in addition to the desk (which can be interpreted as a sign of the importance of intellectual work), it was also furnished in a manner that made it suitable for representation. For instance, it had a piano, a sofa, and a bookshelf.22 In contrast, the latter (the husband’s room) lacked the objects which would have been necessary as signs of social status to make the room appropriate as a space to welcome guests. It was furnished almost exclusively for solitary work. In the husband’s room, a large desk stood in front of the two windows and bookcases stretched along the walls. As a result, Júlia Szendrey’s room was better suited to serve as a salon, while Árpád Horvát’s room was more of a study, although this was not exclusive in either case. The furnishings of the rooms suggest that the husband and wife played roles within their family that did not correspond to the more traditional roles, in which the wife was a more secondary figure to her husband. The emphatic separation of rooms and living spaces could also be understood as a sign of a cold relationship between the spouses.

The Characteristics of Correspondence between Half-Siblings

When Júlia Szendrey married her second husband, she took a 19-month-old boy, Zoltán Petőfi, from her first marriage to the new marriage. From the very beginning, the young mother tried to emphasize the connection with her first husband’s memory and the legacy of the name Petőfi in the child’s identity.23 However, according to the family correspondence, Zoltán had a harmonious relationship with his stepfather for a long time: in his letters he referred to him as father.24 Their relationship became tense only later, after the final deterioration of the parents’ marriage and the death of Julia Szendrey.25 The couple’s two eldest sons, Attila and Árpád, wrote several letters to their half-brother, Zoltán Petőfi, in the 1860s. The origin of the letters is due to the fact that the teenager Zoltán was no longer in Pest with his mother and stepfather’s family, but in Békés county in the eastern part of the country, with his uncle and guardian, István Petőfi, who worked as a bailiff. In the nineteenth century and the earlier centuries, it was not exceptional for relatives, especially aunts and uncles, to be involved in raising children.26 This, in turn, meant that children, especially in their teens, lived away from their parents’ home for an extended period of time in a relative’s household. Júlia Szendrey’s decision to have her eldest son move and live with his uncle was a typical strategy of the era.

Writing played a particularly important role in Júlia Szendrey’s family. It was important not only on a theoretical or aesthetic but also on a material level. We learn from the letters that the boys often received gifts related to writing from their parents; Attila, for example, reported that he had received “a beautiful album and inkwell, stationery, and a wallet for Christmas in 1865.”27 Holidays had a special role for the Horvát boys, as they gave them the opportunity or at least hope for a personal meeting with their half-brother, Zoltán Petőfi. There were several references to this in the letters. For example, on February 24, 1864, “We are also very happy that you’ll come at Easter”; February 3, 1865: “You will come at Easter, well I know you’ll have such a moustache and beard”; April 14, 1866: “Are you coming for Pentecost? Surely, it would be good because we haven’t seen each other for almost a year.”28 There was a reference to the physical distance between the half-siblings several times in the correspondence, similarly to the one found in the last sentence cited above, i.e. the reference to the fact that they had not seen each other in a long time. By writing to each other, they seem to have wanted to bridge this physical distance and avoid growing emotionally distant.

Zoltán Petőfi’s act of sending a photo of himself to his half-siblings can be interpreted similarly. Seen alongside their correspondence, it seems to have contributed to the creation of an illusion of coexistence. Attila Horvát’s reply, written on August 25, 1866, again referred to the time that had passed since their last meeting: “We were very happy to get your photo, it’s been more than a year since I saw you; it’s a nice shot, I think.”29 The latter remark refers to an intimate relationship. It implies that Attila knew Zoltán, who was only three years older, well.30 Among the brothers, Attila was the most ambitious with his correspondence. On December 11, 1866, after a three-month absence, he wrote Zoltán, “We haven’t written to each other for a long time, it would be good if we resumed writing.”31 He expressed a desire for more frequent written contact several times. He also tried to write about topics in which his half-brother might have taken an interest or which might have affected him. In addition to the city events, he often referred to teachers and peers whom Zoltán also knew and who remembered him. The letters seem expressive of an intention to maintain common points of contact with Zoltán, both among the students in Pest as well as in the family. The latter is proved by the fact that Attila Horvát regularly reported not only about his own condition to his half-brother, but also about the condition of other family members (such as their cousins), and he reminded Zoltán of birthdays, such as his youngest sister’s birthday on July 25, 1868: “Iluska is fine; it’s her ninth birthday today. My God, how fast we all grow up!”32 The latter remark is also a good example of Attila Horvát’s view of his family as a community; his perception of himself as part of the family was an important part of his identity when he wrote with love about others. Zoltán Petőfi also frequently wrote warmly of and to his half-siblings in his letters. He referred to Ilona, who was eleven years younger than he, as a “little angel” and as “dear little Ilona,” and he finished his sentences to Attila several times with “yes, indeed, little mischievous one.” He also used the term “my sweet siblings,” for example, when he reported on his sixteenth birthday in Csákó: “This evening, I would have liked so much to have had fun with you, my sweet brothers!”33

The emotional language in family correspondence was so widespread in the era that its norms were included in publications of letter templates. The so-called “correspondence books” for example, the much-published Hölgyek titkára (The Secretary of the Ladies) and Pesti magyar-német házi titoknok (The Hungarian-German House Secretary of Pest) were intended to facilitate the practice of correspondence, so they offered template texts corresponding to social norms and categorizing the various life situations and occasions of letter writing.34 However, in the correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children, several aspects prove that the loving language of the letters was not based on adherence to the norms, but rather on the emotional closeness of the brothers. The boys were connected by a number of games and jokes, and humor was an important component of the letters. For instance, in a letter written to his half-brothers on May 1, 1865, Zoltán used misspellings to imitate the voice of a child still learning to make sounds (I give the Hungarian text for those who read Hungarian): “Mit csinál a kedves kisz Ijonka, igen öjüjök neki hogy szokojtat és tisztejtet, majd ha Pestre megyek viszek neki valami szépet.” One might playfully translate this as, “What is wittle Hewwen [Helen, the English version of the Hungarian name Ilonka] dowing? When I go to Pefft I will bwing her sumfing nice.”35 Ilonka, who was the youngest member of the family, was almost six years old at the time, but there are many references in the family documents to her pronunciation (presumably as a source of humor from previous years), as the eldest child, Zoltán, addressed his younger half-siblings in his writings with wit and playful kindness.

This loving attention was manifested not only in his interest in the wellbeing of those at home, but also in his colorful and enjoyable descriptions of his own experiences and local, rural peculiarities, in which he highlighted phenomena that may have been surprising, unusual, or interesting to his family members in Pest-Buda. While the experiences described by the Horvát boys are exciting sources on the urban culture of Pest-Buda in the 1860s, Zoltán Petőfi’s letters are valuable, among other things, because of the detailed description of rural experiences. The rhetoric of the letters is shaped by the fact that they are written by an urban boy in the countryside who was writing to his urban siblings about his experiences in the countryside. Therefore, he often describes events that would be everyday to people living in rural communities with colorful explanations. Thus, the events on which he dwells are determined in part by the specific life situation of the boys. A good example of this is an excerpt from a letter dated December 24, 1864, in which he explains the meaning of a pig slaughter to Attila. In peasant culture, pig slaughters were timed for the winter, so it is not surprising that, according to Zoltán’s account, they received several invitations in the month of December: “Over the course of the past weeks, there have been several pig slaughters, one after the other. One day, I was invited to one, the next day, I was invited to another one.”36 Even Zoltán’s sixteenth birthday was celebrated during a pig slaughter on December 15. On another occasion, he wrote about peasant weddings in details. His letters contain not only personal but also rhetorical twists imitating the print press (“my gentle questioner,” “dear reader”). Travelogues, which contained descriptions of a similar nature in which their authors dwelt on different customs, were very popular in the contemporary press, and Zoltán’s family members were regular newspaper readers. By bringing the rhetoric of his letter closer to newspaper articles, Zoltán also expanded the functions of his letter writing: in addition to sharing experiences and keeping in touch, he also considered it important to entertain his younger half-siblings with his writing style and personal observations.

Material Characteristics, Style, and Functions of Their Correspondence

James Daybell pointed out that the study of correspondence requires an interdisciplinary approach: social, cultural, palaographic, gender, and literary-critical research approaches and considerations need to be interlinked, and, accordingly, it is worth noting that the researcher is not confronted with neutral, completely fiction-free historical sources, but with age-specific, gender-specific, class-specific letter writing practices.37 Along with the interpretation of correspondence as a writing practice, the examination of material characteristics have come to the fore. Historians have become aware of the importance of letters not only as documents and texts, but also as cultural products which bear meanings through their material forms, so the quality of handwriting, the letter folding technique, and the seals used must also be made subjects of scrutiny. In addition, in recent analyzes, the purpose for which the letters were created has become an important consideration, taking into account the intersections of the different categories (pragmatic, business, religious, family, literary, etc.).38 Analyzing the emotional language of correspondence among brothers, Susan Broomhall and Jacqueline Van Gent found that the act of writing the letter itself, which was mostly a public, shared activity among families belonging to elite, also played a fundamental role in maintaining emotional attachments among family members. Letters often served a similar function to gifts in the context of both social obligations and emotional closeness. 39

In the case of the correspondence among Júlia Szendrey’s children, the material characteristics also deserve attention, because in many cases, these characteristics were closely related to the content of the letters. On September 25, 1865, Attila informed Zoltán that he had received, among other things, a stamp printer from Árpád, on which his name had been engraved for his birthday. According to the surviving envelope, Attila “inaugurated” the gift (used it for the first time) the following day: the letter sent on September 26 in Pest contained a red stamp monogrammed with H. A., and Attila used the stamp on the envelopes for several subsequent letters. In addition to the seals, the letter paper also deserves attention, as in many cases, the paper on which the letters were written were embossed with inscriptions. In the upper left corner of one of Zoltán Petőfi’s letters there is an embossing depicting the Hungarian coat of arms with a crown, surrounded by the first line of the national anthem as an inscription: “God bless the Hungarians.” The contour of the Hungarian coat of arms was redrawn in blue ink, but the crown was not. Zoltán Petőfi was the draftsman, and presumably, by redrawing the Hungarian coat of arms but not the crown, he made clear which symbol he considered important and which he rejected. This can be interpreted as a very subtle expression of his antiroyalism, his conviction in favor of the independence and freedom of the Hungarian nation, which can be considered the spiritual heritage of his father, Sándor Petőfi.

In Zoltán’s letters, several times he wrote separate messages to each of his three half-siblings (Attila, Árpád, and Ilona) on the same sheet of paper. The styles and contents of the letters written by the four half-siblings differed sharply. The wording used by the Horvát boys was usually more concise, and in one paragraph, they often presented completely different types of information (for example, in one letter, they wrote about Morzsa, their dog, in one sentence and about the parliament in the next), but as a result, they presented urban life, the contemporary press, and the events in which they took an interest in extremely varied ways. Zoltán’s style was different. He wrote long sentences, and in many cases, the separate, new sentences merge, as the beginning of a new sentence is not always marked with the use of a capital letter and punctuation is often lacking. An individual letter (especially longer, newspaper-like accounts of experiences) was often about a single topic. Since Zoltán corresponded not only with his half-siblings but also with his mother, he sometimes called on Attila to read the letter written to his mother as well, because he had written on something in more details there, or vice versa, he asked his half-brothers to show the letter he had written to them to their mother because he had not sent a separate one to the “sweet good mom.” In one such case, he also remarked, “and I also write my letters to you all.”40 This suggests that he considered reading letters a common, familial affair rather than a private act.

Familial Use of Space in the Children’s Correspondence

In the letters, the presentation of the family’s use of urban space was given a special role in the holiday descriptions. Attila Horvát and Árpád often reflected in their letters about where they went in the city and what they saw and did.41 Descriptions of such experiences have been highlighted many times in the accounts of the holidays. In the following, I examine what practices were related to the holidays in the family and how this was all related to the growing urban culture of Pest-Buda.

Attendance at Haydn concerts in contemporary Pest-Buda was closely related to the rituals of the Easter celebration. In the spring of 1865, Attila wrote to Zoltán that he and his mother had attended two concerts “at the Buda Castle Church” before Easter, where they had heard performances of The Lamentations of Jeremiah and The Seven Last Words of Christ. Although the traditional venue for Easter Monday in Pest-Buda was Gellert Hill,42 the Horvát boys were taken to the bank of the Danube River and to a café called Kávéforrás by their father: “We were on the bank of the Danube and at the café with dad on Easter Monday, the Danube has risen so much; what used to be 14, 15 feet from the shore to the Danube is now only 1, 1½ feet!”43

May 1, which was considered the spring holiday, the “Wedding of Nature,” and which was already celebrated in Pest-Buda in the eighteenth century, was also mentioned in the children’s correspondence. As had been the case on Easter Monday, on May 1 the boys went for a walk with their father. In a letter to Zoltán dated May 12, 1865, Attila Horvát mentioned May 1 as a day of celebration in the City Park: “Rain rarely occurs here. On May 1, there was a little rain which crushed the sea of dust in the city park, we went walking there with father and had ice coffee, hot coffee, and chocolate.”44 As the letters indicate, the children were taken for walks on the holidays by their father, who worked mainly as a historian and university professor and spent a significant amount of time in the library.

The mention of delicacies as if they were an integral part of urban experience may be explained by the fact that the letters were written by children. The letters evoke the city as it presented itself to the senses: the senses of vision and taste played important roles in the texts, especially the experience of urban flavors (chocolate, coffee, cocoa). Consumption of chocolate was also an important indicator of the social status of the family. In the Hungarian Reform Era, confectioneries appeared in Pest-Buda as places suitable for local consumption (candy shops existed much earlier, as far back as the 1770s), and the Biedermeier furnishings were intended to suit the tastes of the emerging bourgeoisie.45 In his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz analyzed how sugar reached the lower classes of society after having become common in the households and day-to-day lives of the affluent social strata and how its symbolic meanings changed.46 Although the consumption of chocolate was no longer the exclusive prerogative of the aristocrats in the second half of the nineteenth century, it certainly belonged to the customs of the wealthy and, more specifically, the urban elite. Attila Horvát’s description also draws attention to the fact that rare delicacies were a treat with which the family marked a holiday.

The Szendrey-Horvát family spent not only May 1 but also August 20 in the City Park in Pest, which was the traditional venue of St. Stephen’s Day celebrations in memory of the founder of the state, the first Hungarian king. In 1863, one day after the August 20 holiday, Júlia Szendrey wrote to Zoltán Petőfi of the day she had spent in the City Park and the disappointing, low-quality fireworks: “We came home terribly dissatisfied, regretting having spent two forints for this boredom.”47 The City Park had been used as a venue for firework shows, a much-loved form of entertainment, in the Reform Era. People who wanted to see the spectacular fireworks of Anton Stuwer, Vienna’s “patented Viennese fire master,” who was advertised in the contemporary newspapers, gathered in the park.48 The excerpt from Júlia Szendrey’s letter cited above indicates that they had already seen firework shows, and they had been able to compare the spectacle on that day with earlier, similar experiences. Although the children’s correspondence makes no mention of the August 20 celebration, the description provided by their mother is significant. First, alongside the colorful descriptions found in the boys’ letters, it adds a factor which may well have been more relevant to an adult, namely the (allegedly excessive) cost of the experience. Júlia Szendrey also offers a rational characterization of the St. Stephen’s Day City Park program, thus drawing even more attention to the peculiarities of the tone and perspective of the children’s letters. Finally, she writes of an event when all the members of the family (apart from Zoltán) spent the day together in the City Park, which was very rare according to the children’s correspondence. In their letters, the boys generally mentioned either their mother or father as their companion, and they never once wrote of joint family walks. This is not surprising if one keeps in mind that the problems in Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát’s marriage49 had become so serious by the early 1860s that the idea of divorce had arisen.50 It cannot be a coincidence that no family photo has survived depicting the two of them together, considering that studio photos of Julia Szendrey and her children were taken several times. Although they remained together until 1867, family programs were presumably not left untouched by the cold relationship between the mother and the father. The ways in which the family seems, on the basis of the sources, to have used urban spaces suggest that both the mother and father were involved in the children’s lives and had close emotional relationships with them, and one can conclude, on the basis of the childrens’ letters and the mention of the activities in which they engaged with each parent, that both Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát devoted time to raising their children, even if they did not do this together.

The Role of Gift-Giving in the Family

In the correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children, descriptions of the family’s use of leisure time and of space in city parks were important in connection with the holidays discussed above in the spring and summer. When writing about the winter holidays (the Feast of Saint Nicholas, Christmas, New Year’s Eve) and the birthdays and name days of the family members, however, the children mainly noted the gifts they had received from their parents, their relatives, and one another.

The serious change in the role of gift-giving in the family is indicated by the advertisements in the contemporary press and the mass spread of toys for children. Beginning in the 1860s, the toy trade played an important role in the economic life of Budapest.51 Children’s toys were offered primarily by so-called Nuremberg ware shops named after the German trade center, Nuremberg. Although the number of specialized toy stores began to increase at the end of the nineteenth century, these types of shops remained important until the first decade of the twentieth century, selling relatively cheap consumer goods for everyday life, including a very large number and selection of toys.52

The prestige of gifts became increasingly important. At the turn of the century, the dollhouse as a gift for daughters and the rocking horse as a gift for sons were also important markers of a family’s social status and financial situation. Toy retailers whose spatial location was close to areas that were easily accessible and popular among children (such as the Museum Garden) were able to stay in business for a long time.53 Toy stores, advertisements targeting children, and shopkeepers also sparked social debates about gifts in the contemporary press. In the 1860s, when these trends were beginning to emerge, Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát’s son regularly wrote to their half-brother, Zoltán, of the gifts they had received. When they wrote about family Christmases, they dwelled for the most part on presents.

Christmas Júlia Szendrey’s Family

Children’s Christmas presents in 1863 included sweets (“Sugar fruits from Genoa”) and toys (“two span perimeter rubber balls,” “Porcelain figures,” and boardgames). In February of the following year, the eight-year-old Árpád wrote to Zoltán in detail of the gifts he had received for Christmas. The emphasis on books in the list is particularly noteworthy: Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Puss in Boots were among the titles. The copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales was presumably given by Júlia Szendrey, who was the first person in Hungary to publish the literary translations of the works of the Danish author through German mediation in a volume. She dedicated her well-received book, published in 1858, to her children.54 In 1864, Attila also mentioned that he had received a copy of “Andersen” from his mother. Another member of his family had also given him a book: he had received One Thousand and One Nights from his aunt, Mária Szendrey, for Christmas. He was also given a “capsule pistol,” a gift he had long wanted, as he had a love of military games.

The correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children is also an exciting source from the point of view of toy history. The boys were given books and military toys, but also several spectacular pyrotechnic gifts. I managed to identify these toys, which seem both dangerous from our perspective but also special compared to the classic gifts often mentioned in connection with the nineteenth century (rocking horses, military figures, and dollhouses), by examining contemporary price lists and advertisements.55 One of the Nuremberg traders56 who played a central role in the Hungarian toy trade was Tódor Kertész. His price lists, which included everything for sale in the shop,57 included “harmless room fireworks.”58 The fireworks were given fancy names, such as “Mephisto’s Shining Paper.” Readers could see the advertisement for the “room fireworks,” which were allegedly suitable for home use, in the columns of contemporary newspapers.

In the Fővárosi Lapok (Newspaper of the capital city), Tódor Kertész advertised the Christmas and New Year’s gifts available at his store with the following caption: “the latest room fireworks...”59 His price lists also included magic kits,60 “mind toys,” and “amusing boardgames.”61 The latter included boardgames that were also suitable for chess, mill, backgammon, and draughts. Árpád was surprised in 1863 when he was given one of these boardgames for Christmas by his parents.

Tódor Kertész opened his shop around Christmas in 1861, and every subsequent year, he had organized Christmas toy exhibitions.62 His customers included famous politicians and writers of the period (including Ferenc Deák and Mór Jókai).63 As the widespread distribution of specific toy retailers can be traced back to a later date, Árpád Horvát may have obtained special gifts for his children from a Nuremberg merchant (perhaps at Tódor Kertész himself).

According to the letters, in the Szendrey-Horvát family, the children were given an equal share of educational and entertaining gifts, and in many cases, they were given gifts which served both functions. Given the games that were mentioned in the letters, it is not difficult to imagine how family members spent the Christmas holidays, but notes in the correspondence offer additional clues to this as well. In 1864, on the occasion of the first Christmas Zoltán spent away from his parents’ home, he wrote the following in a letter to his family: “When you have fun, play cards, remember me, who, though far from you, will think of you on Christmas Eve.”64 Attila’s response confirmed the imagined scene: “We were playing cards with Mr. Óváry on Christmas Eve.”65 These two remarks also draw attention to the fact that, at the time, Christmas was not necessarily a holiday for which family members would gather, much as it had also been perfectly normal, two decades earlier, when Julia Szendrey had been a child, that a child pursuing studies somewhere far from his parents would not spend Christmas at home. Also, not only family members but also friends (in this case, József Óváry, the Horvát boys’ tutor) could join the celebration.

Family Birthdays and Name-Days

In addition to the importance of the Christmas celebration, gift giving also played a significant role in family holidays such as birthdays and name-days. Attila Horvát recorded the following about his fourteenth birthday in September 1865: “For my birthday, I received many gifts, and so I’ll list them here: a very beautiful and expensive knife and a beautiful crocheted purse from Mom. Mythology and a ‘Students’ Pocketbook’ from Dad. For the price of two forints I got some paint, a pencil, Spanish wax, and a sealer with my name engraved on it from Árpád! Ilona gave me a small bag that she crocheted herself.”66

The list draws attention to several things. First, the gifts seem to indicate the gender of the person who gave them. Regarding Ilona, the only daughter, the brothers repeated noted in their letters that she was able to knit. As a result, she mostly gave crocheted or knitted gifts not only to her siblings but also to her mother (such as a garter). Not surprisingly, gifts also indicated the gender of the person who received them. Ilona, for instance, received toys considered appropriate for girls from her parents, such as “a dozen of dolls, cooking utensils.”67 The gifts also highlight the importance of writing. The boys gave one another writing related items (pencils, Spanish wax, a sealer), and the parents were also happy to bestow such gifts. For Christmas 1865, Attila received “a beautiful album and inkwell, stationery, and a wallet,” and Árpád received paint and stationery, among other things.

The father was happy to give gifts with educational functions to help cultivate the intellectual curiosities of his sons. Elek Peregriny’s book Mythologia a két nembeli ifjúság használatára (Mythology for the use of youth of both sexes) discusses in various chapters the religious rites, the main gods (including their Greek and Roman names), the demigods, the mythological wars, and the morals and customs of the Greeks and Romans (including, for instance, the construction, the “palaestra exercises,” such as the topics of working out, clothing, marriage, parenting, meals, guest ceremonies, dance, funerals, and mourning).68 He thus encouraged his children to acquaint themselves not only with the characters of mythology but also with the history of Greek and Roman culture and lifestyles.

Certain gifts seem to have been intended to strengthen his children’s attachment to their Hungarian identity. On Attila’s twelfth birthday, he wrote the following in a letter to Zoltán: “My birthday was good and happy, I got a big national flag from my father, which hung from his window during the revolution[.]”69 The gifts thus had several meanings. They were not simply toys intended to entertain the children. They were also symbols of the values that the parents intended to pass on. The central role of culture, the importance of writing and reading, the value of learning and knowledge, the encouragement of activities assigned to gender roles, and the emphasis on national identity all appeared in the range of meanings represented by the gifts. In addition, gifts given by the children expressed similar values. The toy magazine, edited as a gift for their mother, bearing the title Tarka Művek (Multicoloured Works), and containing writings by the children, were gifts that showed the effect of the family environment on the children’s interests and ways of thinking. The children seem to have considered writing a source of joy, a gift, and a game. It is no coincidence that in 1864, on Attila’s thirteenth birthday, he interpreted the letter he sent as a gift: “Receive this letter from your brother as a birthday gift, who often thinks of you.”70 Thus, the gifts that were exchanged among the members of the family can be seen as reflections of the growing consumer culture, which developed dynamically in the 1860s, but they can also be interpreted as expressions and embodiments of the values of the urban educated bourgeoisie. Parents and relatives who considered intellectual curiosity and the arts and sciences important in education were able to express this with the gifts they gave to their children, which, they presumably hoped, would help nurture these values in their children.

Poems by Júlia Szendrey’s Children as Gifts

Júlia Szendrey’s children regularly wrote poems for family occasions. They mainly greeted their mother, aunt, and cousins on birthdays and name-days, but poems written for wedding anniversaries and New Year’s Day also survived in their bequest. In many cases, poetry manuscripts can be found on fine, lavishly decorated letter paper. Writing greeting poems for family members and relatives for different festive occasions was such a common practice in the era that books were also published which specifically included this type of template text in order to help children with the obligation to write festive poems. Ferenc Neÿ’s book A gyermeki kegyelet tolmácsa (The Interpreter of Children’s Grace) is an example of one such book. It was published in 1851 by Gusztáv Emich. Its function and target audience were revealed by its subtitle (“Celebratory greetings, toasts, dialogues, and scenes for all kinds of family celebrations. Recommended for the youth by Neÿ Ferenc”), but even more so by a sentence from the author’s foreword: “The child rarely finds words for his sweetest emotions, so in order to support their more beautiful aspirations, I am happy to offer myself as an interpreter, and they will certainly rejoice if they learn to express what they feel in their hearts. For this reason, I recommend this booklet to the youth.”71 The volume included New Year’s greetings, dialogue scenes for festive occasions, and name-day and birthday greetings. The various texts in the book are arranged not only by the type of holiday but also by family members: they included separate subchapters for poems to mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, godmothers, etc.

Poems to the Mother

The greetings written by Attila, Árpád, and Ilona Horvát were influenced by this tradition. They each used the contemporary formulae with which children expressed respect, but the poems also show signs of their creativity and imagination. The texts were made personal with references to current life situations and personal greetings. In poem written on the occasion of a name-day, Attila wished his mother not only a long and happy life but also that she have the good fortune to travel to Venice, where she had longed to go for a long time: “And may you greet Venice with its gondolas this year!!”72 In reality, Júlia Szendrey had never been to the romantic city, although a piece of writing has survived which gives the illusion that she was writing the lines in Venice (which suggests that the city had captured her imagation). Only in the last lines of the text does it become clear that it is not an account of an actual experience, but rather merely something she wrote while she was looking at map of the city spread out on her couch.

The poems were also made personal by the fact that the children often wrote about their feelings and life situations, even if they used traditional rhetorical formulae of the genre. For example, in one such poem, they apologized for writing something that was too short, “[b]ecause the nightmare of the exam is looming.”73 There are even poems the specific function of which seems to have been to serve as an apology. In one poem, Attila even explained, in lines written above the poem, why he was writing (he had made his mother angry), and he made a promise: “Well, I see I have made you angry a lot. / And my conversion is not just a scribbling.”74

The children also wrote poems for one another. The texts of these poems offer impressions of the images of themselves that the children sought to convey, and the poetry also offered them an opportunity to compete and tease one another. For example, the younger son, Árpád, suggested to his mother that she could choose to go overseas with him in her old age, “to Haiti, Cuba / Or if you like to California / where lots of gold and diamonds can be found,” or she could choose to remain with Attila “ in the boring city of Pest.”75 Thus, the greeting poems, despite their genre, were not conventional, as the children enriched them with their own ideas and also included their own family members and relatives in the texts of the poems. Because of this, the poems reveal a lot about the authors’ self-images and their images of each other, primarily through their wishes and plans for the future.

In 1864, Attila envisioned a future like this in his mother’s birthday greeting: “When you are old, and Ilonka married, / Árpád at the sea, but me at your side.”76 He depicted his sister as playing the traditional role of the wife and his brother as pursuing the adventurous career of the seafarer, while he reserved for himself the strongest expression of a child’s love and devotion to its mother. Therefore, the greeting poems can be interpreted as a creative expression of the parent-child relationship and a proud self-depiction of the author, who intended to present himself as the mother’s most loving child.

In several poems, the boys wished their mother a happy grand-motherhood and happy silver and gold wedding anniversaries. For Júlia Szendrey’s thirty-eighth birthday (December 29, 1866), Attila offered a vision of his mother as a grandmother surrounded by at least ten children. He also referred to his own imagined future as a professional:


I’m going to talk about fields and cows

As a farmer is entitled to do.

Little Árpád is about machines,

As is typical of a technician.77


This is the only indication in the texts in question that Attila was preparing for a career in farming and Árpád for a career in mechanics and engineering (there were frequent references to Árpád’s alleged desire to be a seafarer). As an adult Árpád, worked together with Tivadar Puskás and Ferenc Puskás, who established the first telephone network in Budapest.

Greeting poems by the Horvát boys also shed some light on the family lifestyle. When wishing Júlia Szendrey well, one of them wrote, “[h]ave a faithful maid, in addition to good spirits, / May you never be angry with the maid or with the child.”78 The typical problem of the period, the maid issue, also affected the Szendrey-Horvát family. This is also indicated by comments in the correspondence, for example, “mom has a lot of trouble with the maids because they are hardly here for two weeks then they leave. Even today, as I write this letter, a new one is being hired.” In another letter, Attila complained that “[t] here is still a lot of trouble with the maids; about a dozen or so maids and cooks have left since you left.”79

The children did not stop writing poems for the mother when she and her husband separated. Even in the last year of Júlia Szendrey’s life, when her sons no longer lived with her but resided instead with Árpád Horvát, they still wrote new poems for her. They promised her a happy future, which would contrast with the sufferings of the past and present, and they wished her good health and expressed their hopes that her illness would soon be a thing of the past.” In December 1867, Árpád expressed his warmest wishes for his mother’s birthday as follows:


May you be a happy grandmother,

Have a gold wedding anniversary,

May you even forget that

you were suffering from disease.80


Two months later, in a poem written on the occasion of his mother’s name-day in February 1868, Attila wished her a speedy recovery and wrote of the pain he felt at having to be separate from her, despite the love which bound them.81 The function of poetry writing thus expanded even further during this period. In addition to serving as a way of marking an occasion by offering festive greetings, it also contributed to maintaining a sense of a loving connection between the mother and the children, despite physical distance.

Poems for the Cousins

The visions of the future of the family that appeared in the greeting poems were intertwined with ideas about contemporary gender roles as well. This is especially noticeable in the poems addressed to their aunt, Mária Szendrey, in which good wishes are addressed not only to her, but also to the children’s cousins. Mária Szendrey (1838–1866) was the younger sister of Júlia Szendrey. In 1858, she married the prominent literary historian, Pál Gyulai. They had three children: Aranka was born in 1859, Kálmán in 1861, and Margit in 1862. Their family lived in Kolozsvár (today Cluj, Romania) between 1858 and 1862, which is why Attila Horvát portrays all of his cousins as the future prides of Transylvania. He wanted his cousins to fulfil the classic role models of women and men (housewife, patriotic girl, valiant hero, patriot): “Aranka should be a good housewife / The pride of the beautiful Transylvania”; “Aranka is a proper girl / Let her work for the benefit of the nation. / What should I tell about little Kálmán / The little patriot / When he grows up he will be the most beautiful valiant knight of Transylvania.”82 In the visions drawn for the girl and the boy, personal deeds done for the sake of the nation are common elements. Otherwise, the ideal visions of female and male life are markedly different, as was the case in Attila’s poem for the new year of 1866, in which he predicted a marriage for Aranka and a future in literary criticism for Kálmán, following his father. A vision determined according to gender roles also appears in relation to the siblings in Attila’s poem of 1864 cited above, in which he envisions his sister, Ilona, as a wife with a husband and his brother, Árpád, as an adventurer at the sea. While the poems looking into the future usually emphasize some kind of occupation or profession (critic, sailor, technician, farmer) in the case of the boys, in the case of the texts written for the girls, they almost exclusively envision them as having become wives.

The boys’ correspondence also shows what they considered newsworthy about the girls. For example, Zoltán wrote at Christmas 1864, in response to his half-brothers’ letter: “I’ve heard that little Ilonka can already knit. Well done! Now she can compete with Aranka.” A diary entry which mentions Júlia Szendrey’s name-day also reveals that the boys followed the traditional gender roles and accordingly played no part in the kitchen preparations (baking and cooking) for the festivities. They considered the task of writing name-day greetings an adequate contribution on their behalf: “Only we boys have done as was expected, we have already handed over our poems; there isn’t anything we should do now. We can’t be used in cooking anyway.”83

Júlia Szendrey’s and Mária Szendrey’s children wrote poems not only for the adults but also for one another. The poems which have survived constituted sources on their relationships as cousins. In the poems written by the older boys to the younger relatives, the practice of addressing one another by nicknames played a very prominent role. Attila called Aranka “Anka” and “Anka Bankám,” and Árpád called Kálmán “Kálmánka” or “little Kálmán” in his poems. Birthday wishes in these poems were also aligned with gender roles. Attila wrote to the three-year-old Aranka, “[m]ay she have many good children” and “[l]et her be a good patriotic girl,”84 and on her sixth birthday he wished her “[t]reasure, happiness / a good husband and family.”85 Árpád’s poem to Aranka also dwelt on the importance of family. He wished his niece many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and he wished her parents an extremely long life.86 According to the vision offered by the “poet,” the four generations will sit contently around the “family fireplace” together. The boys jokingly expressed their love for their aunt and niece, too: “We love you, we love you, sweet good Marika / We will marry you if we can, sweet good Aranka.” The imaginary marriage between the male and female cousins expressed their strong togetherness and common identity.

The nieces also had good relationship with each other. They were not only relatives, but friends. Ilona Horvát and Aranka Gyulai were the same age. They were both born in the summer of 1859. Ilona called her cousin “little playmate” in her writings.87 Among her poems, a message of her to Mária Szendrey survived which was presumably created when Aranka was visiting her cousin’s family. The girl sent greetings to her aunt, assuring her that Aranka was in good spirits.88 In 1868, after mother’s death, Ilona moved into her uncle Pál Gyulai’s home and lived together with her cousins, who had also lost their mother. Mária Szendrey died in 1866 during the cholera epidemic. The nieces attended the same school in the 1870s: their teacher was Róza Kalocsa, who later wrote the most popular handbook of manners in Hungarian.89 Therefore, the cousin relationships remained strong even after the parents had died.


In Júlia Szendrey’s family, the sources suggest an intermixture of pre-modern and modern forms of parenting. By “pre-modern,” I am referring to the active participation in family life of kin who fell well outside the nuclear family. By “modern,” I am referring to the participation of the father in childrearing to a larger degree than was customary at the time. Alongside Zoltán’s mother and father, his relationship with his uncle, István Petőfi, also played a crucial role in his upbringing, i.e. the family used a strategy that was widespread both at the time and in the previous centuries: the boy experienced life both in his parents’ household and in a relative’s household, and thus he discovered a second environment. Familial use of space also reveals a great deal about the husband-wife and parent-child relationships. According to Júlia Szendrey’s letters and the letters written by the boys on family events, the mother took the children for walks on weekdays and the father took them for walks on public holidays. This suggests that, despite their deteriorating relationship, the husband and wife devoted time and attention to their children. Since in the circles of nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and in the world of norms conveyed by the contemporary press, the figure of the working father and the mother raising her children at home was considered ideal (even if the rigidity in practice of the theory of “separated spaces” based on radical separation is questionable based on a number of sources), it was not evident that the father would also be involved in the children’s leisure-time activities. Thus, as a father, Árpád Horvát took a very active part in the life of his children compared to the expectations and norms of the period, according to which raising children was clearly the mother’s task.

The uses of urban space during the city walks and the uses of the family home can be compared from the points of view of the parents. In both cases, the spaces used by the wife and husband were strongly separated. Quite unusually at the time, Júlia Szendrey had her own room, the furnishings of which indicated that writing and creative, individual intellectual work were important to her. However, the marked separation also showed that the relationship between the spouses was not characterized by the emotional closeness shown towards their children.

The analysis of the family’s uses of space also showed that the rituals associated with the holidays and routines of everyday life were considerably different. As a historian and university professor, Árpád Horvát worked on the weekdays, but he took time off from work for Easter, on May 1, and on similar holidays and spent this time with his children. The Horvát boys’ descriptions of urban phenomena are especially colorful and entertaining. The boys reflected on phenomena that an adult would not necessarily notice or consider worth mentioning. At least on the basis of the letters they exchanged, the children growing up in the Szendrey-Horvát family seem to have been sensitive to visual stimuli, novelties, and the atmosphere of urban life, and they showed remarkable enthusiasm and curiosity. This suggests that the stereotypes emphasizing metropolitan passivity, insensitivity, and alienation should be rethought.90 The examination of intersections between urban history and family history can contribute to research on urban experience from the perspective of the history of emotions, with particular reference to relationships and practices which can be understood based on sources concerning the uses of space by members of stepfamilies.

Correspondence played a key role in establishing family identity and in maintaining emotional ties between family members living far apart. It is particularly important that, in his letters, Attila Horvát depicted himself as a member of the community of siblings, regularly using the term “all of us” and reporting not only on himself but also on the lives of other members of the family (such as his cousins). He constantly encouraged maintaining contact with the physically distant Zoltán Petőfi and writing about topics that would be of interest to him. The accounts of regularly shared experiences allowed the half-siblings to be part of one another’s daily lives from afar. The formation of the children’s family experiences and the feeling of belonging were influenced by events and practices such as writing and reading letters, giving gifts, sharing puns and jokes, teasing, and describing experiences during city walks, on weekdays, and during family celebrations. Thus, in the Szendrey-Horvát family, the family identity as strongly shaped by writing practices connected both to the little things of everyday life and the rituals of the holidays.

Archival Sources

Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Kézirattár [Manuscripts Archive of National Széchényi Library] (OSZK Kt.)

Fond VII/135, 234.


Primary sources

Kertész, Tódor. Képes árjegyzék Kertész Tódor egyesült raktárából [Illustrated price list from the unified warehouse of Tódor Kertész]. Budapest: Tódor Kertész, 1876–1899.

Neÿ, Ferenc. A gyermeki kegyelet tolmácsa [The interpreter of children’s grace]. Pest: Gusztáv Emich, 1851.

Peregriny, Elek. Mythologia a két nembeli ifjuság használatára [Mythology for the use of youth of both sexes]. Pest: Konrád Adolf Hartleben, 1857.

Szendrey, Júlia. Andersen meséi [Andersen’s fairy tales]. Pest: Lampel, 1858.

Szendrey, Júlia. Szendrey Júlia összes verse [The complete poems of Júlia Szendrey]. Edited by Emese Gyimesi. Budapest: Kortárs, 2018.

Secondary literature

Ariès, Philippe. Gyermek, család, halál [Children, family, death]. Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 1987.

Broomhall, Susan, Jacqueline Van Gent. “Corresponding Affections: Emotional Exchange Among Siblings in the Nassau Family.” Journal of Family History 34, no. 2 (2009): 143–65. doi: 10.1177/0363199008330734.

Csapó, Katalin, Tibor Éliás. Dobos és a 19. század cukrászata Magyarországon [Dobos and the nineteenth-century confectionary in Hungary]. Budapest: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, 2010.

Csics, Gyula. Magyar forradalom 1956 – Napló [The Hungarian revolution of 1956: Diary] Edited by János Rainer M. Budapest: 1956 Institute, 2006.

Davidoff, Leonore. Thicker than Water. Siblings and their Relations 1780–1920. Oxford–New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Daybell, James. Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England. Oxford–New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Deáky, Zita. “Jó kis fiúk és leánykák” A kisgyermekkor történeti néprajza Magyarországon [“Good boys and girls”: A historical ethnography of early childhood in Hungary]. Budapest: Századvég Kiadó, 2011.

Deáky, Zita. Gyermekek és serdülők munkája Magyarországon a 19. századtól a második világháborúig [Child and adolescent labor in Hungary from the nineteenth century to World War II]. Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 2015.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Polgári otthon és enteriőr Budapesten.” In Polgári lakáskultúra a századfordulón [Bourgeois interior culture at the turn of the century], edited by Péter Hanák, 27–59. Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia – Történettudományi Intézet, 1992.

Gyáni, Gábor. Az utca és a szalon. Társadalmi térhasználat Budapesten, 1870–1940 [The street and the salon: Social use of space in Budapest, 1870–1940]. Budapest: Új Mandátum Kiadó, 1998.

Gyáni, Gábor. Identity and the Urban Experience: Fin-de-siècle Budapest. New York–London: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Gyáni, Gábor. “‘Térbeli fordulat’ és a várostörténet” [The “spatial turn” and urban history]. Korunk 18, no. 7 (2007): 4–12.

Gyimesi, Emese. “Hungarian female writers after the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849.” Klio 14, no. 1 (2014): 86–96.

Gyimesi, Emese. “Urban Space through Children’s Eyes: The Image of Pest-Buda in the 1860s.” In Identity, Nation, City: Perspectives from the TEMA Network, edited by Jaroslav Ira, Jan de Jong, and Imre Tarafás, 251–65. Budapest: Atelier European Social Science and Historiography Department, 2015.

Gyimesi, Emese. “‘egy nő, több mint csak asszony’ Szendrey Júlia és Horvát Árpád házassága” [“A woman, more than just a wife”: The marriage of Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát]. In A test a társadalomban [The body in society], edited by Emese Gyimesi, András Lénárt, and Erzsébet Takács, 228–42. Budapest: Hajnal István Kör Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület, 2015.

Gyimesi, Emese. Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában [Through the eyes of a child in the family of Júlia Szendrey]. Magyar Családtörténetek: Források 2. Budapest, 2019.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History. New York–Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Horváth, Hilda. “A Janny és a Zlamál család otthonai és tárgyai – polgári lakáskultúra a 19. század utolsó harmadában” [The households and belongings of the Janny and the Zlamál families: Bourgeois interior culture in the last third of the nineteenth century]. In Tanulmányok Budapest múltjából [Essays on Budapest’s past], vol. 32, edited by B. Varga Judit, 37–58. Budapest: Budapest History Museum, 2007.

Hermann, Róbert. 1848–1849, a szabadságharc hadtörténete [1848–1849, the military history of the war of Independence]. Budapest: Korona, 2001.

Kunt, Gergely. “‘És a bombázások sem izgattak… legalább egy kis változatosság van.’ Gyereknaplók a második világháborúból [And I did not worry much about the bombings either… At least we have some variety.” Children’s diaries in the Second World War]. Aetas 24, no. 2 (2009): 44–68.

Kunt, Gergely. Kamasztükrök. Korall Társadalomtörténeti Monográfiák 7. Budapest: Korall Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület, 2017.

Magyar, Erzsébet. “‘Társalkodási kertek, promenádok, mulató- és népkertek.’ A Habsburg monarchia közparkjai: magánkertek és városi parkok Buda-Pest társas életében (1870–1918) [“Social gardens, promenades, leisure gardens, and public gardens.” Public parks in the Habsburg Monarchy: Private gardens and city parks in social life in Buda-Pest (1870–1918)]. PhD diss., Eötvös Loránd University, 2008.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking–Penguin, 1985.

Péter, Katalin, ed. Gyermek a kora újkori Magyarországon [Children in early modern Hungary]. Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, 1996.

Pollock, Linda. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge–New York–Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Szilágyi, Márton. Határpontok [Border points]. Budapest: Ráció Kiadó, 2007.

Tészabó, Júlia, Róbert Török, and Bence Demjén. “A Babatündérhez.” A budapesti játékkereskedelem története [“The fairy doll house.” The history of toy trade in Budapest]. Budapest: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, 2010.

Tészabó, Júlia. “A játék szerepe a gyerekek fogyasztóvá válásában” [The role of toys in the transformation of children into consumers]. Sic Itur ad Astra 63 (2013): 155–66.

Tipray A. Julian. Legujabb és legteljesb pesti magyar-német házi titoknok, vagyis levelezőkönyv és házi ügyvéd [The newest and most complete Hungarian-German house secretary of Pest, or a correspondence book and household counselor]. Pest: Kilián György, 1861.

Vajda János. Hölgyek titkára vagyis legujabb levelezőkönyv nők számára [The secretary of the ladies, or the newest correspondence book for women]. Pest: Heckenast Gusztáv, 1861.

Wohl Janka. Utmutató a ház czélszerü és izlésteljes berendezésére s vezetésére. Irta egy nagyvilági hölgy [The home. Guide to the tasteful and practical arrangement and management of the household. Written by a high-bred lady]. Budapest: Athenaeum R. Társ., 1882.

Zoltán József. Népi szórakozások a reformkori Pest-Budán [Folk diversions on Pest-Buda of the Reform era]. Budapest: Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár, 1975.

1 On the military history of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence, see Hermann, 1848–1849, a szabadságharc hadtörténete.

2 On her literary career in the context of the contemporary debates on female roles and women writers, see Gyimesi, Hungarian female writers after the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849. I collected and published all her poems in a critical edition in 2018: Szendrey, Szendrey Júlia összes verse.

3 I published the previously unpublished sources in 2019: Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában.

4 The research of Gergely Kunt in this field should be highlighted: Kunt, “És a bombázások sem izgattak…”, Kunt, Kamasztükrök. In connection with the 1956 Revolution, the childhood diary of Gyula Csics, published by the 1956 Institute and edited by János Rainer M. on the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, is very significant. It touches on the period between October 1956 and March 1957. Csics, Magyar forradalom 1956 – Napló.

5 Ariès, Gyermek, család, halál.

6 Pollock, Forgotten Children.

7 Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London, 5–6.

8 Davidoff, Thicker than Water, 1–2.

9 Ibid., 78–107.

10 Ibid., 281–307.

11 Ibid., 132.

12 Deáky, “Jó kis fiúk és leánykák.”

13 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában.

14 As a significant proportion of soldiers were housed not in barracks but in the private homes of citizens and peasants, from the beginning of the eighteenth century the practice of maintaining a “soldier’s room” gradually developed in areas where boarding was regular. There are no indications in the sources as to whether any military person actually lived in the room marked “soldier’s room” on the floorplan for Júlia Szendrey’s family’s home. The children’s correspondence suggests that maids used this room.

15 Gyáni, Az utca és a szalon, 144.

16 Ibid.

17 A similar example from the last third of the nineteenth century: the boys were also given a separate room in the bourgeois home of Dr. Gyula Janny’s family in Koronaherczeg Street (now Petőfi Sándor Street in the fifth district of Budapest), and a part of the room was separated from the parents’ bedroom for the daughter: Horváth, A Janny és a Zlamál család otthonai és tárgyai, 49.

18 As early as 1882, Janka Wohl emphasized this norm, which fundamentally defined bourgeois domestic culture for a long time: Wohl, Az otthon, 59.

19 Gyáni, Az utca és a szalon, 143.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 149; Gyáni, Identity and the Urban Experience, 53–58.

22 Gyáni, “Polgári otthon és enteriőr Budapesten,” 46.

23 Szilágyi, Határpontok, 119–32.

24 OSZK Kt. VII/135.

25 After the death of Júlia Szendrey, Árpád Horvát wrote to his children about his stepson: “Only write a response to Zoltán – do not write otherwise; for not only is he behaving very disrespectfully towards me, but I can even say his manners are truly offensive; he barely raises a hat in front of me… ” OSZK Kt. VII /141.

26 Davidoff, Thicker than Water, 165–94.

27 Ibid., 151.

28 Ibid., 156.

29 Ibid., 158.

30 Zoltán Petőfi was born on December 15, 1848, Attila Horvát was born on September 6, 1851.

31 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 162.

32 Ibid., 165.

33 Ibid., 129.

34 Tipray, Legujabb és legteljesb pesti magyar-német házi titoknok, Vajda, Hölgyek titkára.

35 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 138.

36 Ibid., 129.

37 Daybell, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England, 9–10.

38 Ibid., 10.

39 Broomhall and Van Gent, Corresponding Affections, 147.

40 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 126.

41 They wrote about urban experiences not only in their letters, but also in their journals, which they made as a gift for their mother. Gyimesi, “Urban Space through Children’s Eyes.”

42 Zoltán, Népi szórakozások a reformkori Pest-Budán, 63–70.

43 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 137.

44 Ibid.

45 Csapó and Éliás, Dobos és a 19. század cukrászata Magyarországon, 15–16.

46 Mintz, Sweetness and Power.

47 OSZK Kt. VII/ 234.

48 Magyar, “Társalkodási kertek, promenádok, mulató- és népkertek,”197; Zoltán, Népi szórakozások a reformkori Pest-Budán, 95.

49 For more on the marriage, see Gyimesi, “‘egy nő, több mint csak asszony’ Szendrey Júlia és Horvát Árpád házassága.”

50 Júlia Szendrey was already considering divorce in 1861, but in the end she did not separate from her husband until 1867. She wanted to convert to Protestantism (she was a Catholic) in order to divorce from Árpád Horvát, but her death on September 6, 1868 prevented her from doing so. The reasons for the breakdown of the marriage are revealed in two letters. In one, Julia Szendrey asked her father’s permission to divorce, stressing that she had suffered a lot because of her second husband. The other letter was addressed to the abandoned husband himself. This letter suggests that Árpád Horvát’s violent, often threatening behavior led to the deterioration of their relationship and that they thought very differently about the roles of women and men, happiness, and sexuality.

51 Tészabó et al., “A Babatündérhez,” 18.

52 Ibid., 19.

53 Ibid., 23.

54 Szendrey, Andersen meséi.

55 I would like to thank Júlia Tészabó and Irén Császi for their advice, which helped further my research on toy history.

56 For more on the Nuremberg merchandise stores and Tódor Kertész, see Tészabó et al., “A Babatündérhez,” 18–19, 57–58.

57 Tészabó, “A játék szerepe a gyerekek fogyasztóvá válásában,” 161.

58 The supply of goods changed relatively slowly during the era, so the price lists which survived from later decades provide a reliable point of reference for identifying toys.

59 Fővárosi Lapok, December 20, 1865. 1156.

60 Kertész, Képes árjegyzék 1899, 9.

61 Kertész, Képes árjegyzék 1876, 23.

62 Tészabó et al., “A Babatündérhez,” 9.

63 Ibid., 32–33.

64 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 129.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid., 145.

67 Ibid., 151.

68 Peregriny, Mythologia.

69 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 128.

70 Ibid., 126.

71 Neÿ, A gyermeki kegyelet tolmácsa (without page number.)

72 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 207.

73 Ibid., 204.

74 “Sokat busítottalak tégedet át látom / De ím megtérésem nem csak ákom bákom.” Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 205.

75 Ibid., 211.

76 Ibid., 196.

77 Ibid., 198.

78 Ibid., 213.

79 Ibid., 132.

80 Ibid., 199.

81 Ibid., 201.

82 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 219.

83 Ibid., 174.

84 Ibid., 222.

85 Ibid., 223.

86 Ibid., 228.

87 Ibid., 230.

88 Ibid., 229.

89 Ibid., 254.

90 For critiques of the paradigm of the urban modern personality created by Georg Simmel, see Gyáni, “‘Térbeli fordulat’ és a várostörténet,” 4–12.


Impoverished by Cholera: Widows, Widowers, and Orphans after the 1873 Cholera Epidemic in Kolozsvár

Edina Tünde Gál
Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 667-692 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.667


By analyzing the official sources produced during the communal management of a crisis due to the cholera epidemic, the study focuses on the official definitions of people in need of support as well as the survival strategies of ordinary widows and orphans in the city of Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár in the second half of the nineteenth century. Widows with children were more likely to be considered disadvantaged and receive aid than widowers. Poverty was closely related to a given individual’s ability or inability to work. Remarried widows were not considered eligible for aid, regardless of the family’s financial resources. The presence of small children was a strong motivating factor for remarriage: widows hoped to get financial support from a new spouse, while widowers needed a wife to care for children. The term orphan often referred not to the family position of a child, but rather to its place within the larger social network.

Keywords: cholera epidemic, orphans, poverty, widows, remarriage

 The helpless widow, the abused orphan, and the cruel stepmother are stereotypical figures in both folk culture and literature. The aim of the present study is to describe the individual fates of the widows and orphans behind these stereotypes. In the summer of 1873, the cholera epidemic reached Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca, Romania) and took the lives of 537 people. Censuses of the widows and orphans left behind were compiled to determine who required help. These lists thus offer insights first and foremost into the survival strategies used by widows and orphans of a lower social stratum. They shed light, furthermore, on how the elite of the town defined the concept of orphanhood and, closely connected, that of poverty.

The Legal Background of Orphanhood and Guardianship in Hungary

In every community, the tasks of raising orphaned children were the duty of the family and relatives, undertaken mostly by grandparents and uncles. In their wills, fathers often made their decisions clear as to the guardians and upbringing of their children, as well as the management of their bequests, listing several possible variations of the latter or rewriting their wills several times in light of any changes in the circumstances of their families.1 In nineteenth-century Hungary, only children who had lost their fathers were legally recognized as orphans. Prior to the guardianship law of 1877, the guardianship of orphans was regulated in Werbőczy’s Tripartitum, although these regulations predominantly concerned the wealth of minors. The appointment of guardians followed the order of inheritance based on the protection of the wealth of minors, so it granted guardianship (and, at the same time, the management of wealth and property) to those who were to have a share of the inheritance. In accordance with this, guardians on the mother’s side were only appointed if there were no living relatives on the father’s side, as stated by Werbőczy:

If, however, the son has male relatives who are due to paternal rights, as well as the inheritance and devolution of the livestock, the inheritance and guardianship of the livestock must be granted to the male relatives and not to the mother.2


The orphan, however, was not necessarily raised by his guardian, since if the mother was still alive, she raised the child in most cases. The guardian’s main duty was to manage the orphan’s inheritance/estates until coming of age in the absence of the father. The mother as a natural and legal guardian could only have guardianship while she remained a widow. Complications arose if a widow remarried, as the relatives on the father’s side took over the management of the wealth so that the new husband and his relatives would not benefit from it. In fear of ill treatment and the squandering of the family fortune, the father could posit in his will that, if his widowed wife were to remarry, the children would be taken from her, “lest they should be abused by the stepfather.”3

In 1870 and 1871, guardianship authorities were established in counties, municipalities, and towns to deal with issues of orphanhood. The guardianship law and the responsibilities of guardianship authorities were only finalized in 1877.4 The guardianship law basically followed the guidelines laid out by Werbőczy, but it stipulated with greater precision the responsibilities of guardians and those of guardianship authorities as institutions providing supervision. Guardianship continued to be bound to paternal authority, and the appointment of a guardian was claimed to be necessary only in the lack thereof. The order of possible guardians remained unchanged with one exception: in the absence of a will, the mother became the legal guardian of the minors, but a male guardian could still be appointed to manage the wealth. If the mother was not alive, the next possible guardians in line were the grandfathers on the mother’s or the father’s side or, as a final solution, the guardianship authority appointed a guardian. The guardianship of orphans of noble birth was rather advantageous to the guardian, as it involved the management of the inherited wealth; thus, conflicts among relatives over guardianship frequently led to litigation. The law included specific articles concerning the upbringing of orphans who were without property or wealth: the responsibility fell on whoever was capable of providing for these orphans or could place them in an institution until they were capable of supporting themselves by working.5 As opposed to the guardianship of wealthy orphans, which came with several benefits, taking care of destitute orphans was perceived as a burden, though contributions by children as a part of the labor force in the household were much needed, and children themselves were often exploited as a source of labor.

According to the guardianship law of 1877, minors were legally acknowledged as adults at the age of 24, and from that point on, they could freely dispose of their wealth. Women were regarded as adults from the moment they married, regardless of their actual age. At the same time, the law stated that orphans over the age of 14 could freely dispose of the goods and payments earned with work and service if they provided for themselves. This meant that children 14 years of age could support themselves through their work but were not considered adults.6 Even minors engaged in a trade individually could only be declared of full age by the guardianship authorities when they turned 18.

Sources and Methods7

My research is based on the documents of the Cholera Committee preserved in the archives in Kolozsvár.8 The committee was set up for the duration and prevention of the epidemic. The documents include detailed records on the widows and orphans of those who died as a result of cholera, compiled with the aim of providing support for the poor and those in need at the request of the Ministry of the Interior in May and June, 1874.

The number of orphans and widows are added up based on the tables, censuses, and reports found among the documents of the Cholera Committee. Some of the documents were exclusively for internal use, so they reveal how the final list of the people who were granted support was compiled. The first list was a report by assistant physician Mihály Bartha, and it included the names and addresses of 173 widows and the number of children they had. The list served as a guide for district chiefs for the detailed field surveys of districts. Reports by district chiefs also indicated the financial situation of widows, their occupations, and sources of income, as well as the number of their children, their ages, places of residence, caregivers, and sources of livelihood.9 The reports were used to compile the list of those recommended for financial aid, so the names of the family members found eligible for support were recorded on five further lists in different versions (lists of those supported). Based on the dates, content, and stylistic features (e.g. words crossed out), one can make inferences concerning the order in which the documents were made, and the documents themselves offer insights into the factors on the basis of which decisions concerning whether or not an individual was regarded as poor were made.

The censuses were compiled in the form of tables, and the order in which they were arranged (according to names of streets) indicates that they were indeed based on field surveys. The lists often include data which those conducting the surveys only could have learned on site, such as the place where the orphaned children were being given temporary lodging and care or the fact that they had left the city. Furthermore, the word choice is not standard or neutral, which displays a certain subjectivity and uncertainty deriving presumably from the first impressions of those recoding the data: the 51-year-old widow Mrs. Borbála Fodor György Kocsárdi, for instance, who provided for her three children by working the land, was characterized as “not quite poor.”10

Identifying the families raises several methodological problems, since the records tend to be inconsistent. There are minor differences detectable concerning, for example, the numbers and ages of the children, and the name of the widow was often mistaken for that of the deceased spouse. For this reason, in this paper the records have been complemented with data from registers of deaths, thereby correcting the inconsistencies and identifying nearly 80 percent of the persons indicated on the lists.11

Registers of marriages reveal the rate of cholera widows who remarried and the factors contributing to the decision to remarry or to remain a widow. The research examined widows recorded in Kolozsvár church registers of births, deaths, and marriages over the course of eight years, that is, until 1880.12 While the censuses always indicated the names of the husbands, registers of marriages often only featured the maiden names of wives, which at times made it impossible to identify widows.

Censuses of Orphans and Widows in Kolozsvár

The huge number of children orphaned at the time of the epidemic shocked the citizens of the city. People were used to losing parents and looking after orphans, but the number of broken families fighting for their livelihood grew at an unprecedented speed in a very short period of time. Information on the total 154 families and the caregivers for and circumstances of 251 underage orphans provides a special opportunity to observe the individual life stories and survival strategies of people who belonged to the lower strata of society.13

The term underage orphan indicates a child who needed to be looked after and who had not yet turned 18. The age limit of eighteen was determined on the basis of laws in effect at the time and on information provided by the sources. Similar studies regard the age of 13 as the upper limit of childhood.14 The data, however, are not consistent, and it is often difficult to differentiate between adolescents and smaller children because the only information available is whether the child in question was employed or worked as an apprentice. Thus, children’s precise ages cannot be determined. Children of age and married women were named separately, thus they can be identified, even if their exact ages remain unknown.

The Definition of Poverty: Designating Those in Need

After the cholera epidemic, people all over the country were encouraged to donate money to aid widows and orphans left destitute. Concerning support for the poor listed in the censuses ordered by the Ministry of Interior, the municipalities could decide whether to spend the reserves of the guardianship authorities for these purposes.15 Kolozsvár received donations from the town of Szászrégen (today Reghin, Romania) and from Switzerland for the orphans of those who died of cholera, and mayor Elek Simon gave some of these donations to the orphanage for girls.16 However, the records do not indicate when the financial aid was transferred to the orphans in the census, nor do they indicate the amounts that were given.

The censuses recorded each member of the families concerned, including several children of age. The financial circumstances of the families were classified into three categories: 1. poor, 2. in adequate condition, and 3. in good condition.17 The list of names in need of financial support was modified on several occasions due to subsequent clarifications. The best example of such modifications is the case of the nine-year-old Jóska Makó, the stepson of a poor army officer, who according to a report in May was “ill-treated in the hands of strangers.” The boy’s name was not featured in the final list of those eligible for support, since, as indicated by a clarification in the margins, he was in fact being raised by a relative, Mihály Makó paid by his father and thus did not need any external financial aid.

The census takers tried to determine different “levels” of poverty; for instance, they highlighted if an individual was very poor, destitute, or lived in extreme poverty. The authorities differentiated between levels of poverty in order to determine the “degree of need” of individuals in comparison to one another and depending on the amount allotted to provide aid. Those who were classified as “in adequate condition” or “in average condition” were naturally not considered in need of financial support. The financial conditions of some families were not indicated, perhaps because in their cases there was no need for support.

On the lists of those recommended for financial support 46 families can be identified, while the final list features only 35 families (22.7 percent of the families registered).18 Fully orphaned siblings (ten families) and widowed mothers and their children (18 families) were prioritized, whereas only four widowed women and three widowed fathers were granted support. Widows and their orphaned children were assured a place even on the strictest of lists, as they were unequivocally regarded as poor and disadvantaged due to the absence of the head of the family.19 Men, on the other hand, were not considered to be in a vulnerable situation owing simply to the fact that they were widowers (i.e. men). Sándor Losonczi, a widowed tailor with four children, for instance, was recorded in the census as being poor, but he did not make it onto the final list. Thus, as a widower who was capable of working, he was not considered eligible for aid, since he was still able to pursue his trade, even if, as the head of the family, he still lived under the most modest conditions. György Heuberger, on the other hand, was considered eligible for financial aid because he was physically disabled and lived in poverty with his seven-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son. His inability to work made him poor and qualified for aid.

Mothers who remarried were not qualified for financial support either, regardless of their financial circumstances, since the new family was considered a self-sustainable economic unit. 13 of the widows of those who died of cholera (6.7 percent) were already remarried when the census was taken. Remarks by those compiling the lists did not necessarily refer to these women’s livelihoods. In the newly formed families, the mother’s role as caregiver and the father’s role as breadwinner complemented each other nicely, so the children were seen as having a secure future and their financial circumstances were not regarded as a decisive factor.

112 of the orphans recorded in the censuses were of age, so they were not considered eligible for aid. Women were regarded as adults from the moment they married, a fact stipulated by law,20 thus not a single married woman is found among those who were given financial aid. Young women who were able to work (for example in the cigar factory of Kolozsvár) or made a living of sewing or as maids, were not considered in need of aid, regardless whether they were married or not.

According to their contemporaries, the individuals featured on the lists for support were indeed all poor, and no families are found among them who lived under better circumstances and were only recommended for financial aids on the basis of biases. Nothing in the lists indicates favoritism concerning representatives of any professions either, as illustrated by the case of shoemakers. Two district chiefs among the census takers were borough council members of the Shoemaker’s Association, and yet only three of the thirteen families of shoemakers were granted support.21 Some of these families, such as the Perdelis, were indicated as wealthy. According to the census, Károly Szathmári, who had been a member of the guild since 1869, and his two daughters were very poor; nevertheless, they were not recommended for support.22 This may be explained by the fact that, as suggested by the documents, the shoemakers’ association appeared to be a well-operating society which provided aid for members who were struggling, so any shoemaker in need of financial support would have put the association in a bad light.

Although there are no signs of partiality in the lists of people who received financial aid, the absence of widows who lived off the land is noticeable: the final list includes only one mother who worked the land.23 The more favorable conditions of widows of husbandmen24 left alone after the epidemic may be explained by the fact that small landowner families were self-sufficient, as they could produce the food necessary for their livelihoods. Surprisingly, however, since they were seen as having a place to live and adequate food for their children, farmers’ widows with several children were not eligible for financial support even if they had an infant to take care of, which obviously placed a considerable burden on their time and their ability to work.

Taking Care of Underage Orphans

A typology of the lives of underage orphans is a difficult endeavor, since their stories are rather varied.25 As part of a similar research endeavor, Alain Bideau and Guy Brunet examine the possibilities orphans had after having lost their parents. Bideau and Brunet offer several individual yet indicative examples. I agree with their claim that there was no such thing as a “typical orphan,” but that there was, rather, a host of different situations that had an impact on orphans’ lives.26 Nevertheless, based on the specifications used in the Kolozsvár census, I attempt to delineate some categories of housing and livelihood: 1. orphans raised by relatives; 2. orphans raised “out of mercy”; 3. working orphans; 4. orphans raised in institutional care; 5. motherless or fatherless orphans raised by a surviving parent (Figure 1).27


Figure 1. Taking care of underage orphans after the 1873 cholera epidemic in Kolozsvár


Most of the orphans living in the households of relatives had lost both their parents. These orphans were predominantly raised by their grandparents, uncles, and aunts, who fulfilled their unwritten duties even if they were poor. To the extent that they were able, they raised an orphan or two. The nine-year-old and six-year-old daughters of János Pap, for example, were raised by the mother’s sister, Mrs. Sándor Csáki, who was probably a servant living in her employer’s household. A total nine of the 23 children (9.2 percent) who were able to reside with members of their families were taken care of by their uncles or aunts, three by elder siblings, five by grandparents, and six by other relatives. In the case of motherless or fatherless orphans, this situation was only temporary, until the parent who had survived could create the conditions necessary to bring up his or her children, for instance until fathers deemed unsuitable for raising their children remarried. Bideau and Brunet explained the decision reached by a few French fathers not to undertake to rear their children even after they had remarried as a consequence of financial concerns.28 As my research revealed, after István Gombos had remarried, his three-year-old child continued to stay with the grandparents on the mother’s side, who provided better conditions than the father, despite the fact that Gombos could have provided lodgings for the child.29

Older children were generally taught to take care of younger ones; after the death of the parents, they frequently had to take on the responsibility of raising their younger siblings and providing for the family.30 One could cite a few examples among the orphans in Kolozsvár. After the widow Mrs. Ferenc Májer passed away, her 18-year-old daughter made a living for herself and her four-year-old brother by sewing, while the 22-year-old son of Mrs. Mátyás Mózsa had to take care of his brother and sister, aged fourteen and eight.

Orphaned siblings could not always remain together, especially if there were many of them, which meant that they often had to be separated. The same thing happened when a widow could not take care of all her children alone, in which case the grandparents and uncles took on the upbringing of one or more of the children.31 Relatives rarely raised more than two children, as that would have been burdensome financially.32 Károly Balázs and Teréz Kremplin left behind three young children, one of whom, the five-year-old Ilona, was accepted into the Mária Valéria Orphanage with the help of the Women’s Charitable Association, whereas Mari, aged two, and Aladár, aged four, continued to stay with Samu Bányai. We do not know exactly how he was related to the late parents, but he was certainly very poor himself. Mrs. Antal Prohászka’s five children likewise ended up living separately. Joséfin got married, Lujza was a student at the Teachers’ Training College of Kolozsvár, Károly was admitted to the Terezianum Orphanage in Nagyszeben (today Sibiu, Romania), and Ida and Emma were temporarily taken care of “thanks to the kindness of good Samaritans.”

Orphans Raised in Institutional Care

After the epidemic, altogether four children (1.6 percent) ended up in institutional care.33 The Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls in Kolozsvár, founded the year before, applied to the Ministry of Interior for a state subsidy of 1,500 forint per year to be able to admit children who had been orphaned by the pandemic. The application was rejected, and they were sent a single sum of 500 forint, which made it impossible for them to admit more than a small number of orphans.34 At the same time, the heads of the orphanage probably knew about the financial support granted for orphans of the cholera, since the presidency and board members of the orphanage were all wives of the urban elite. In the end, the orphanage granted admission to only two girls from among the orphans, both in return for payment: Mrs. János Rhédey paid for Róza Orosz’s education, and Ilona Balázs’s upbringing was paid for by the Women’s Charitable Association in Kolozsvár.35

Róza Orosz was admitted to the orphanage in 1873, and Ilona Balázs moved in in 1874. At the time of the May 1874 census, Róza’s mother, Mrs. Ferenc Orosz, made a living as a servant. When the list of widows and orphans was complied, Ilona was being raised by a temporary caregiver in dire poverty. Both girls stayed at the institution until the age of 14. Róza then returned to live with her mother, and Ilona went to stay with her relatives.36 At this point, they were both able to work, thus their upbringing did not cause financial difficulty, since they were a part of the labor force.

Two orphaned boys were granted admission to the Terezianum Orphanage in Nagyszeben. Károly Prohászka, a descendant of a farmer family, finished the eighth grade in secondary school in 1880.37 Only good students were sent to the secondary grammar school. The other students were taught a craft or trade after they had completed the obligatory grades. The other orphaned boy, József Butyka, was admitted to the orphanage at the age of 13. According to the register of deaths and the admission records of Karolina Hospital in Kolozsvár, József’s mother, Róza Butyka, wife of comb maker Sándor (or Elek) Babos, lived in Torda (today Turda, Romania). As József bore his mother’s family name, he was probably an illegitimate son. After finishing six grades of elementary school, he was sent to a saddler in Nagyszeben to learn the trade. His apprenticeship ended in 1886. Vocational education lasted for four years, during which time the apprentice was under the supervision of the master, who provided him full board, which meant accommodation, clothing, and food. The orphanage paid a certain amount of money to the master in return for taking on the apprentice and then releasing him, and it paid a final bonus to the boys when they left.38

The aim of the orphanages was to provide knowledge and skills for the children in their care that would enable them to earn their own livings. In the Terezianum Orphanage in Nagyszeben, the vocational training of boys proved to be the most effective way to achieve this goal. For the heads of the Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, finding jobs for their girls was a much greater challenge, and they were almost only able to find employment for the girls that was connected somehow to household duties. In the institution, the girls could acquire the skills necessary for housekeeping and learn how to sew, and then they were sent to work as housemaids.39

Working Orphans and Apprentices

Children were called on to do work in every family, depending on their state of development and abilities. This was considered an important part of teaching them to work and of rearing them to function as adults. Losing a parent brought significant changes in terms of children’s work as well, since an orphaned child had to take over the roles of the absent family member. Orphans had more responsibilities, and the amount of work to be done increased, and orphans were often compelled to leave the family home earlier and take an active part in providing for their families. Widows were incapable of raising several children by themselves, so, if possible, the older children were sent to work as apprentices or housemaids.40 For poor parents, sending one child away to work was a help, since they then had more food left for the children who remained in the home. The Kolozsvár census recorded 26 orphans (10.4 percent) working for a salary or as an apprentice (most of them were 14 to 16 years old). Two of the eleven orphaned girls made a living from sewing. The others worked as maids. Seven of the boys were apprentices, and the other eight worked as servants, day laborers, or in another brunch of business. None of them was supported by his or her parents. The boys were generally taken on as apprentices at the age of ten or twelve, and their master was obliged to provide them housing, food, and clothing. These young men learned their master’s trade in these three to five years as apprentices.41

Corporal punishment was an everyday reality for apprentices. “The masters who were raised by the slap, the belt, and the switch still cannot break the habit of corporal punishment,” claimed the director-physician of the Kolozsvár State Children’s Asylum in a report in 1912.42 The physician pointed out a “tradition” of corporal punishment prevalent among craftsmen, which the orphans of the 1874 census who were taken on as apprentices frequently experienced. The relationship between master and apprentices was often compared to father-son relationships, which thus meant that master had the right to discipline. Corporal punishment was certainly used for this purpose, but while at the turn of the century apprentices often lived in the cellar and their clothes were shabby, earlier the guilds made sure they were well kept. The living conditions and overwork demanded from apprentices in towns in the early 20th century was a horrible phenomenon, which may be explained by the fact that at this time the strict orders of guilds no longer regulated the treatment of apprentices, and that with the development of manufacturing industries, cheaply manufactured products meant a huge competition for the small workshops.43

The right to use corporal punishment also concerned orphaned girls employed as housemaids, a practice that was regulated by the Housemaid Law of 1876. Gábor Gyáni’s research44 provides a comprehensive picture of the issue of housemaids, their social positions, and their daily lives. Despite the dangers and their vulnerable position as housemaids, it was during these years that the young girls could acquire the skills needed for housekeeping and earn the dowry necessary for starting a family, so their job played an important part in their transitions into adulthood. As a housemaid was dependent on her employer, parents usually sent their daughters to work for families they knew and who, they felt, would surely treat them well.45 István Albert from Kolozsvár, for example, sent his daughter to work as a housemaid for a family living in the same street. Four of the orphans of the cholera epidemic worked outside of the city. The rest worked for families in Kolozsvár, so the parents could easily get news about their child’s wellbeing.

Orphans Raised “Out of Mercy”

If they were without family members to provide some level of care for them, some orphans were (temporarily) taken care of by godparents, neighbors, or other acquaintances. To use the term used by the census takers, the group of orphans raised “out of mercy” consisted of 23 children (9.2 percent) who had no familial or other clear relationship to their caregivers, at least as far as one can determine on the basis of the sources. Presumably, they had no family tie whatsoever to their caregivers, since family relatives raised orphans not out of mercy but as an obligation. Whenever the census takers did not indicate a familiar relationship, they stressed that the orphans were raised out of mercy, which points to the voluntary and temporary nature of the act. The situation of the orphans of the Aikler family suggests uncertain housing and a frequent change of place of residence. According to the sources, the children had no permanent residence. At the time of the census, the twelve-year-old girl was living with a poor relative, and her eight-year-old brother lived “somewhere else.”

Not all children taken into strangers’ households were fully orphaned. Ten children had one parent who was still alive but who was incapable of taking care of the child owing to poverty or lack of employment. The children were usually sent to live with strangers in the absence or lack of the mother until someone took the role of the mother in the family, for example until the father remarried. Mrs. Julianna Szemeriay Sándor Márkus had two daughters who resided in Sándor Nagy’s home while she worked as a servant. The two daughters of Ede Horváth, who was struggling to make ends meet, were taken in by Mrs. Hirlich, wife of a locomotive stoker, and taken to his station in Ung county (today Ukraine). Dániel Máté’s orphans, the two-year-old Dani and the three-year-old Róza were given lodgings in the court of Count Mikó out of mercy. The father was a day laborer working for the count, and the children were presumably taken care of by a female member of the household.

The examples listed above prove that it was not only children who lost both their parents who could be regarded “orphans” and sent to stay with strangers. The difference between orphans and fatherless or motherless orphans has only recently been acknowledged. At the time, no distinction was made between the two. One’s “ability to raise a child” was thus often determined by the financial situation of the surviving parent. Widowed fathers were not expected to take care of their children either, so those who were incapable of raising their children were exempted from their duties by society. In this interpretation, orphanhood referred to a social situation, i.e. abandonment due to poverty. Thirty years later, in the Ordinance from 1903 completing the Child Protection Act, the definition of abandoned child was formulated as follows:

Children without property under the age of 15, with no relatives obliged to or capable of providing for and raising them and with no relatives, patrons, charity institutions, or organizations to provide for properly and raise them, must be regarded as abandoned.46


It was children whose relatives were unable to raise them due to poverty that were taken into state care, much like the children who were raised “out of mercy” in 1873.

Widows and Their Orphans

The majority of the children listed in the Kolozsvár census lost one parent in the cholera epidemic, so 164 minors (65.3 percent) continued to be raised by the father (in 25 families) or the mother (in 40 families). As Bideau and Brunet note, as long as the one parent (especially the widowed mother) was alive, young children remained with him or her in the family home, but relatives (uncles, grandparents) were also present in the family’s life and provided support for the widow.47 Still, the absence of the father always had a negative effect on the financial situation of the family, even if it did not necessarily lead to destitution or dire poverty.48 Widows of craftsmen could continue their late husband’s occupation with the help of apprentices. Secondary literature on the topic offers several examples of widows engaged in their deceased husband’s craft for a long time.49 Among the widows in Kolozsvár, Mrs. Róza József Bogdán Szathmári, the widow of a shoemaker, for instance, practiced her husband’s profession, though not for long. Running the business, doing the housework, and raising her one-year-old son at the same time was too much of a challenge for her, so less than 18 months later, she remarried to a bachelor of the same age. As Eleonóra Géra points out, taking on both motherly and paternal roles at the same time was a great burden, so widows with older children were more likely to be able to continue their late husband’s craft or business.50 The widowed mothers featured in the census tried to make a living predominantly from domestic service, needlework, sewing, and washing. In farmer families, widows tended to continue farming, but the male labor force proved to be indispensable in the long term, and thus if a widow did not have a son or sons of her own, she was compelled to find a new spouse or take advantage of a son-in-law as a source of labor.51

Among the women widowed during the cholera epidemic, I identified 32 individuals (16.6 percent) in the registers of marriage in Kolozsvár. Though it was difficult to identify women who had been widowed, as the names of the deceased husbands were not indicated consistently, I could find as many widowed mothers who remarried as widowed fathers. In the following, I focus on the lives of 28 widows and widowers (14.5 percent) with orphaned children (15 women and 13 men). According to secondary literature, widowers remarried at a higher rate, so the similar rate of widowed men and women remarrying is probably due to the low number of the sample.52 It is quite probable that a greater proportion of men found new wives from outside of the city, but there are no records of these marriages available. It seems unlikely to me that widowed mothers would have been willing or able to move to another settlement, especially if the house had been the property of the late husband. I think they took this step only in cases of dire need.

Second marriages were generally characterized by some inequality between the spouses in terms of both age and financial situation, since a second marriage was influenced by several factors. Widowed mothers primarily expected their new husbands to provide financial stability, while for widowed fathers, the tasks involved with raising children (especially infants) constituted a major challenge and thus the main motivation for remarrying.53 Many of the widows in Kolozsvár were quite young even at the time of their second marriages, sometimes the same age as unmarried women. They were also appealing as potential spouses because several of them, including some of the widows from Kolozsvár, had inherited their late husbands’ lands or businesses.54 Seven of the 16 women married a bachelor, who thus took on the upbringing of sometimes as many as three orphans (meaning children who had lost their fathers). Five of the 13 widowers married single women, who then took care of their husbands’ children by their first marriages.

According to the secondary literature, widows and widowers tended to remarry relatively soon after having lost their spouses.55 Widowers rarely undertook the task of taking care of young children alone, and the presence of a stepmother was also linked to the likelihood of a child reaching adulthood.56 This was true among widowed parents in Kolozsvár: 21 of 29 widows and widowers remarried within a year of having lost their spouses. The motivation behind this may have been the need to provide care for children in the family. Each mother and father had underage children. The community did not expect fathers to raise young children alone, but it was the father’s responsibility to find a suitable person and create the proper circumstances for childrearing.57 Károly Kis, one of the widowed fathers in Kolozsvár, remarried as early as one month after his wife’s death. The reason for the unusually short mourning period was his one-month-old child, who had been left without a mother, whom he could not take care of, so he married a 23-year-old maiden. The 27-year-old farmer Mihály Szőllősi remarried two months after his wife’s death, also because he was unable to raise his small child alone.

As for marriages between a widow and widower, it can be assumed that both parties brought children to the new blended family, but only one such case can be found documented in Kolozsvár, where both the new husband and the new wife had underage children who had lost a parent. Márton Tárkányi and Júlia Engi, who lost their spouses in the cholera epidemic, both had one daughter when they married in October 1873. They were both Calvinist farmers, so the new marriage did not bring about any changes in their lifestyles. Based on their respective addresses, one sees that, as they were neighbors, they presumably had known each other for a long time, which was probably an advantage for the children, since their new stepparent and sibling were people they knew well. Furthermore, they did not have to leave the neighborhood, as they only moved next door. The girls were roughly the same age, so one could even assume that in this case, two playmates became siblings. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine whether any of the widowers who remarried followed the otherwise common practice of taking a close relative or the sister of the deceased spouse as the new wife, which ensured continuity between the old family and the new.

The sources reveal that most of the widowed persons in Kolozsvár did not remarry.58 It cannot be determined the extent to which this phenomenon can be attributed to the decisions or preferences of the individuals involved, since in the end, the lives of widows and widowers were predominantly determined by their financial circumstances. Poverty, for example, was not an obstacle to remarriage, as several widows categorized as poor were able to find a new spouse. In contrast, widows living in destitution due to ill health could not remarry, because due to their inability to work, they could not improve their circumstances (for instance a blind mother or a widower unable to make a living for himself). In cases like these, a widow or widower had little to no chance of remarrying.

Nor are data adequate to explain the extent to which the community or the family accepted the independence of widows without children of age or, in contrast, urged them to remarry.59 Young widows were still very much under the influence of their families. If, however, remarriage is interpreted as a survival strategy, then the possible reasons the tendency among the widows in Kolozsvár not to remarry may perhaps be explained in several different ways. If she did not have to remarry for financial reasons, a widow may have chosen to remain unmarried for personal reasons. Widows with children who had already reached adulthood or were able to work, for instance, were less likely to remarry, presumably because their children were able to help provide for the family or take over household duties from their widowed mothers so that she could focus on taking care of smaller children.60 In families in which the presence of children who had reached adulthood can be verified, widowed parents usually did not remarry. In the Profanter family, for instance, the two older sons were 20 and 16, and they were able to work as bricklayers, as their father had done, so they were able to contribute to the family earnings while the widowed mother was taking care of her seven-year-old and eight-month-old children.

The function of widows as heads of the household was usually only temporary, lasting only as long as they had underage children.61 In some cases, it is again difficult to determine whether a widow did not remarry as a consequence of a personal decision or simply because she had a lack of options. If she had several small children, she might have been less appealing as a potential spouse since her new husband would have to shoulder the burden of providing care for them. Mrs. Katalin Dávid József Gyulai had five children. The oldest was nine, the youngest only two months old at the time of the census, and they lived in her house with her. The widow Mrs. György Vinczi also had five children. The youngest was two weeks old, but her 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son were already working, so they were able to help her shoulder the burdens of providing for the family. Both women were widows of farmers. It cannot be determined whether anyone else lived in the two widows’ households (such as a grandparent) or whether they perhaps relied on assistance provided by relatives living nearby, but they definitely did not remarry. It seems that both managed the households on their own and raised their underage children on their late husbands’ farms. In the secondary literature, there are a number of examples of widows who did not remarry. When the mother was left a widow, the family did not fall apart. The underage children remained with their mothers, and there are also records of family members (e.g. a grandparent or sibling) who provided help or moved in.62 I believe this might have been the case with the two aforementioned widows from Kolozsvár. Furthermore, neither of them was featured in the list of those who received financial support. Although Mrs. György Vinczi was initially recommended for support, she was left off the final list, and, as the cadastral map reveals, compared to the other farmer, the plot with the house she inherited from her late husband was relatively large.63 The census takers’ assessment was probably influenced by their knowledge of widows having inherited properties, which practically meant that, in their cases, housing and livelihood were regarded as ensured, so the two widows were not considered poor, even given the responsibilities involved in raising small children.

Since widowed fathers rarely undertook the duty of raising minors alone, the relatively high number of single fathers as caregivers for small children is surprising. Unfortunately, the sources offer no information concerning the help they may have received in providing care for the children with, but based on the register of addresses in Kolozsvár, it is clear that they had relatives who lived nearby. In all likelihood, they had family members who helped more than the data recorded by the census takers would indicate. Farmer József Baga seems to have raised his six young children on his own. The youngest child was only one year old, the oldest eleven. The register of addresses indicates that his plot and the one right next to it were the properties of György Baga’s heirs, which may mean that at least one sibling lived nearby. The adjacent plot also belonged to the Baga family, and in the neighboring street there lived a houseowner by the name József Baga. The addresses thus reveal a large family of farmers living in the Hídelve district, so József Baga probably did not have to take care of his children entirely on his own, but received help from female members of the family or the grandmother.64

The case of István Albert was similar. He had six children. One of them had reached adulthood, two worked as domestic servants, and three daughters (aged six, eight, and twelve) lived with him. The elder daughter who worked as a housemaid served nearby. György Albert, presumably István’s brother or perhaps older son, so again, in this case the members of the family lived nearby.65 As for carpenter János Molnár, the explanation may lie in the fact that the eldest of his three orphaned daughters, Zsuzsa, was 21 years old, so she could do the housework and take care of her two younger sisters, aged 9 and 13.


The aim of the census recording widowed parents and orphans after the cholera epidemic was to assess the social problems caused by the epidemic and to identify and provide support for those in need. Among the beneficiaries, underage orphans and widowed mothers were prioritized. The concept of poverty was linked to the tasks involved in rearing children and a given individual’s ability (or inability) to work and earn money. For the census takers, a poor person in need of financial support was someone who did not work and/or had a young child, or in other words, predominantly widowed mothers who were raising their children on their own. The lists compiled of widows and orphans of the cholera epidemic and the categories into which people were divided on these lists offer insights into the practices involved in the placement of orphans living in poverty in the nineteenth century, practices in which the family and relatives played a pivotal role. According to the census takers, who were members of the urban elite, the word orphan referred not simply to a child who had lost both his or her parents (the census takers did not even draw a distinction between children who had lost one parent and children who had lost both parents) but also to children whose parents were too poor to provide for and raise them. Orphanhood, thus, referred often not to the position of a child within a family, but rather to the child’s place within the larger social network.

The loss of a parent or parents brought about several changes in the lives of young orphans. Most orphans who had lost only one parent were raised by the parent who survived, and the surviving parent was often given assistance by relatives living nearby. One-parent families consisting of a mother and a child or children were more frequent than one-parent families headed by a father, as widowed fathers with minors tended to remarry. The upbringing of children who had lost both parents (or whose parents could not provide for them) was usually undertaken by grandparents and close relatives. Providing care for orphaned children was an unwritten family duty, one which family members usually accepted, even when they were poor themselves. Some of the orphans in Kolozsvár, however, were not related to the adults who raised them, and their uncertain situations were noted by the census takers. Older children actively took part in providing for the family: as the part of the deceased parent had to be filled, they took on more tasks or contributed to the livelihood of the family with their salaries. They could ease the burdens which fell on the widowed parent by working as apprentices or housemaids so that the widowed parent would not have to provide for them. Very few orphans were admitted to orphanages: a total of two girls and two boys were placed in institutions in Kolozsvár and Nagyszeben.

After the epidemic had passed, several young women and men had been widowed, and their private lives can be traced back according to the information in the registers of marriages. The decision to remarry was determined by several factors. For women, the main motivation to remarry was to ensure a livelihood for their family, while men mainly sought to provide security for their young orphaned children and to find a new mother to take care of them. Second marriages characteristically came rather quickly, before the end of the year of mourning. In the sample examined here, the rate of those who did not remarry is rather high, which underlines the importance of predominantly financial factors. Some were unable to find a new spouse because they were poor, while others, in contrast, were under no financial pressure to find a spouse, as they were able to subsist on their own. Alongside financial factors, help from children who had reached adulthood or a relative living nearby also decreased a widowed parent’s need to remarry.

Archival Sources

Erdélyi Református Egyházkerület Központi Gyűjtőlevéltára, Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár [Transylvanian Reformed Church Archives]

D3 Documents of the Kolozsvár Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, 1. Presidential Diary (1872−1880).

Arhivele Naţionale ale României, Servicul Judeţean Cluj [National Archives of Romania, Cluj County Branch] (NAR CJ)

University Hospitals – Karolina Hospital F 210, 4/1872−73.

Parish registers F 42.

Burial records: 71/38, 71/78, 71/60, 71/59, 71/3, 71/81, 71/8, 71/6, 71/108, 71/18.

Marriage records: 71/33, 71/37, 71/54, 71/2, 71/81, 71/8, 71/91, 71/107.

Kolozsvár Mayor’s Office F 1.

Documents related to the cholera outbreak 1872–1874.

Document of the Shoemaker’s Association F2, 52. Proceedings of the Shoemaker’s Guild 1820–1899.


Map: Biblioteca Centrală Universitară „Lucian Blaga” Cluj-Napoca/ „Lucian Blaga” Központi Egyetemi Könyvtár, Kolozsvár – Colecţii speciale/Különgyűjtemény [Special Collections]

Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város térrajza az új házszámozás szerint [The map of the free royal city of Kolozsvár], ed. Sándor Bodányi (Kolozsvár, 1869). Dimensions of the map: 119 × 83 cm.


Åkerman, Sune, Ulf Högberg, and Tobias Andersson. “Survival of Orphans in Nineteenth-Century Sweden.” In Orphans and fosterchildren: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Lars-Göran Tedebrand, 83–105. Umeå: Umeå universitet, 1996.

A kolozsvári árvaház évkönyve 1874 [Yearbook of the Kolozsvár Orphanage for 1874]. Kolozsvár, 1875.

A kolozsvári “Mária Valéria” Árvaház évkönyve 1880, 1884. Kolozsvár, 1881, 1885.

A nagyszebeni kir. kath. Terézárvaház értesítője az 1883/4, 1887/8 tanévről. Nagyszeben, 1884, 1888.

Bideau, Alain and Guy Brunet. “The Family, the Village and the Orphan in the Region of Haut-Bugey during the 19th Century.” In When Dad Died: Individuals and Families Coping with Family Stress in Past Societies, edited by Renzo Derosas and Michel Oris, 351−67. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002.

Bideau, Alain, Guy Brunet, and Fabrice Foroni. “Orphans and their family histories.” The History of the Family 5, no. 3 (2000): 315–25. doi:10.1016/S1081-602X(00)00045-2.

Bodányi, Sándor. Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város házbirtokosainak névsora [The property owners of the free royal city Kolozsvár]. Kolozsvár, 1869.

Csipes, Antal. “Az árvaszék szervezete, működése és iratai Magyarországon a kapitalizmus korában” [The organization, activity and documents of the guardianship authority in Hungary]. Levéltári Szemle 23, no. 23 (1973): 176−88.

Csizmadia, Andor. A magyar közigazgatás fejlődése a XVIII. századtól a tanácsrendszer létrejöttéig [The development of the Hungarian public ddministration from the 18th century]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1976.

Deáky, Zita. Gyermekek és serdülők munkája Magyarországon a 19. századtól a második világháborúig [Child labour in Hungary from the 19th century to the Second World War]. Budapest: Gondolat, 2015.

Deáky, Zita. Jó kis fiúk és leánykák. A kisgyermekkor történeti néprajza Magyarországon [Good boys and girls: The history of early childhood in Hungary]. Budapest: Századvég, 2011.

Gaal, György. Magyarok utcája. A kolozsvári egykori Bel- és Külmagyar utcák telkei, házai, lakói [The street of the Hungarians: The houses and inhabitants of the former Belmagyar and Külmagyar Streets of Kolozsvár] Kolozsvár: Erdélyi Múzeum-Egyesület, 1995.

Géra, Eleonóra. “Városi és kamarai árvák a 18. századi Budán” [Orphans in eighteenth-century Buda]. In Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon 1550−1940, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi, 139−67. Budapest: Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont Történettudományi Intézet, 2020.

Gyáni, Gábor. Család, háztartás és a városi cselédség [Family, household and urban housemaids]. Budapest: Magvető, 1983.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Könyörületesség, fegyelmezés, avagy a szociális gondoskodás genealógiája” [Pity, discipline or the geneology of social support]. Történelmi Szemle 41, no 1−2 (1999): 57−84.

Horn, Ildikó. “Nemesi árvák a kora újkorban” [Orphans of noble birth in early modern Hungary]. In Gyermek a kora újkori Magyarországon, edited by Péter Katalin, 51−90. Budapest: MTA Történettudományi Intézet, 1996.

Jelentés az állami gyermekmenhelyeknek 1907–1910 évi munkásságáról [Report on the work of the state children’s asylums from 1907−1910]. Budapest: Pátria, 1913.

Kovách, Géza, and Pál Binder. A céhes élet Erdélyben [Guild membership in Transylvania]. Bukarest: Kriterion, 1981.

Maddern, Philippa. “Between Households: Children in Blended and Transitional Households in Late-Medieval England.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 3, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 65−86. doi:10.1353/hcy.0.0087.

Oja, Linda. “Childcare and Gender in Sweden c.1600–1800.” Gender & History 27, no. 1 (April 2015): 77–111. doi:10.1111/1468-0424.12096.

Oris, Michel, and Emiko Ochiai. “Family Crisis in the Context of Different Family Systems.” In When Dad Died: Individuals and Families Coping with Family Stress in Past Societies, edited by Renzo Derosas and Michel Oris, 17−79. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002.

Pakot, Levente. “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás a székelyföldi rurális közösségekben 1840–1930” [Widowhood and remarriage in rural Székely Land]. Demográfia 52, no. 1 (2009): 55–88.

Péter, Katalin. “Paraszti özvegyek a 16−17. századi Magyar Királyságban” [Peasant widows in the Hungarian Kingdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries]. In Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon 1550−1940, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi, 171−96. Budapest: Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont Történettudományi Intézet, 2020.

Pillich, László. Városom évgyűrűi [The growth rings of my city]. Bukarest: Kriterion, 1985.

Skořepová, Markéta. “Orphaned children in Bohemian rural society in the first half of the nineteenth century: Care, co-residence and inheritance practices.” In Orphans and Abandoned Children in European History: Sixteenth to Twentieth Centuries, edited by Nicoleta Roman, 219−50. London–New York: Routledge, 2018.

Szende G., Katalin. “Craftsmen’s Widows in Late Medieval Sopron.” In Women in Towns: The Social Position of European Urban Women in a Historical Context, edited by Marjatta Hietala, and Lars Nilsson, 13−21. Stockholm: Stads- och Kommunalhistoriska Institutet, 1999.

Van Poppel, Frans. “Widows, Widowers and Remarriage in Nineteenth-Century Netherlands.” Population Studies 49, no. 3 (1995): 421−41. doi:10.1080/0032472031000148756.

Werbőczy, István. Tripartitum. 1514. Accessed November 6, 2019, http://www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~capitul/analecta/trip_hung.htm.

1 Horn, “Nemesi árvák.”

2 István Werbőczy, Tripartitum (1514), 113/5 §. Accessed November 6, 2019. http://www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~capitul/analecta/trip_hung.htm

3 Horn, “Nemesi árvák,” 54−61.

4 Csizmadia, A magyar közigazgatás fejlődése, 197−99; Act 20/1877. Accessed November 5, 2019. https://net.jogtar.hu/getpdf?docid=87700020.TV&targetdate=&printTitle=1877.+%C3%A9vi+XX.+ t%C3%B6rv%C3%A9nycikk&referer=1000ev; Csipes, “Az árvaszék szervezete, működése és iratai.”

5 Act 20/1877, 112 §.

6 Act 20/1877, 4−5 §.

7 I owe a debt of thanks to Ágnes Flóra, archivist at the National Archives of Romania, Cluj County Branch, for having called my attention to and allowed me to consult the documents of the cholera committee.

8 NAR CJ, F 1 Mayor’s Office, Documents related to the cholera outbreak 1872−1874.

9 The census was compiled by the following individuals working in the following parts of the city: 1. János Manitza for the Külmonostor-Külszén district, 2. Mihály Csíki for Hídelve, 3. Gyula T. for the Külmagyar-Külközép district. In the inner city, district captain Lajos Kállai did not compile the data as a table but rather wrote separate reports for each family.

10 Other designations included “poor, but able to subsist,” “in the direst destitution,” and “true destitution.”

11 I used all the marriage registers in Kolozsvár, including those for the Calvinist, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, and Jewish communities.

12 Since I only used the registers from the city of Kolozsvár, I was only able to learn about the fates of widows and widowers who remarried in Kolozsvár. Thus, the conclusions I draw may not be applicable in any larger context but apply, rather, only to the people about whose later lives the sources offer some information.

13 I identified a total of 193 heads of families on the lists. In the case of 17 of these heads of families, we do not know whether they had a spouse and a child or children. 22 had no children and were survived only by a widow or widower. The lists contained 396 orphans, 112 of whom had reached adulthood or were married when the lists were compiled and three of whom died. Concerning another 30 children, the sources provide no indication of their ages or their housing situations. As a result, of the total 396 orphans, the present study focuses on 251 underage orphans.

14 Bideau et al., “Orphans and their family histories”; Maddern, “Between Households.”

15 Magyar polgár, September 24, 1873.

16 Magyar polgár, December 12, 1873; A kolozsvári „Mária Valéria” Árvaház évkönyve 1884, 26.

17 Various terms are used, for instance “very poor,” “without property,” “destitute,” and “in an ordinary condition.”

18 Of the four lists, two were drawn up before May 14, 1874, when it was reported that the final statement had not yet been drawn up. The additions that were made to the third list suggest that it was made for internal use.

19 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis.”

21 In 1872, the Shoemaker’s Guild was transformed into the Shoemaker’s Association. Mihály Csíki (the chief of the Hídelve district) was a board member, and János Manitza (the chief of the Külmonostor-Külszén district) was the president of the association beginning in 1872. On the guilds see Kovách and Binder, A céhes élet Erdélyben; NAR CJ, F2 Document of the Shoemaker’s Association, 52. Proceedings of the Shoemaker’s Guild 1820–1899.

22 I was able to identify six individuals from the families who had suffered deaths from cholera on the basis of an 1869 list found in the guild documents. With the exception of Károly Szathmári, according to the 1874 census, they were all adequately well-off financially.

23 The assisted widow for whom assistance was provided, Mrs. Katalin Szász József Mezei, still lived on her husband’s plot at the time of the census with her two children. She married again in 1876 at the age of 35. Bodányi, Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város, 44.

24 The inhabitants of the outskirts of the city, the so-called “hóstáti,” considered themselves the urban farmers of Kolozsvár. Their community was forced to give up their land and previous lifestyle in the 1970s and 1980s, when under the communist regime the districts they inhabited were used for the construction of new housing blocks. See Pillich, Városom évgyűrűi; Gaal, Magyarok utcája.

25 Bideau et al., “Orphans and their Family,” 321.

26 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family, the Village and the Orphan.”

27 In addition to the aforementioned groups, three orphans had already passed away, six were living in another city, two small children were being taken care of by a wetnurse, and one girl was attending the teachers’ training institution in Kolozsvár.

28 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364.

29 Bodányi, Kolozsvár házbirtokosainak névsora, 15.

30 Deáky, Jó kis fiúk és leánykák, 82−85.

31 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364.

32 Bideau et al., “Orphans and their Family,” 315−25; Maddern, “Between Households,” 72; Horn, “Nemesi árvák,” 60−61.

33 Also, two infants were turned over to the city wetnurse, because their father was in prison. The wetnurse was paid using funds from the city’s coffers. NAR CJ, F 1 Mayor’s Office, 2578/1874.

34 Transylvanian Reformed Church Archives, D3 Documents of the Kolozsvár Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, 1 Presidential Diary (1872−1880).

35 The association which ran the Mária Valéria Orphanage was a spinoff of the Kolozsvár Women’s Charitable Association. There was considerable overlap between the two from the perspective of their members. A kolozsvári árvaház évkönyve 1874, 31.

36 The source does not indicate precisely how the person who took her in was related to her.

37 On the fate of the other four siblings see the subchapter entitled Relatives. A nagyszebeni kir. kath. Terézárvaház értesítője az 1883/4 tanévről, 11.

38 A nagyszebeni 1883/4, 14; A nagyszebeni 1887/8, 46.

39 A kolozsvári “Mária Valéria” 1880. Supplement. 10–11.

40 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 21−24; Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 55−61.

41 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 247−60.

42 Jelentés az állami gyermekmenhelyeknek 1907–1910 évi munkásságáról, 96.

43 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 247.

44 Gyáni, Család, háztartás és a városi cselédség.

45 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 230.

46 Ordinance 1/1903 Ministry of Interior; Gyáni, “Könyörületesség, fegyelmezés,” 76−77.

47 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364−65.

48 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 19.

49 Szende, “Craftsmen’s Widows.”

50 Géra, “Városi és kamarai árvák.”

51 On peasant widows who managed their lands on their own, see Péter, “Paraszti özvegyek.”

52 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 76; Van Poppel, “Widows, Widowers and Remarriage”; Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 69.

53 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 22.

54 For instance, the widow of stonemason János Szabados married the stonemason Ferenc Bálint in August 1873.

55 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 72, 81.

56 Skořepová, “Orphaned children in Bohemian rural society,” 225, 229; Åkerman et al., “Survival of Orphans,” 85−86, 99.

57 Oja, “Childcare and Gender,” 85−86.

58 35 widowers and 52 widows did not remarry.

59 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 82.

60 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 29; Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 72, 82; Skořepová: “Orphaned children,” 225, 228.

61 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 33−34; Skořepová, “Orphaned children,” 229−30.

62 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364−65.

63 Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város térrajza az új házszámozás szerint [The Map of Kolozsvár Free Royal City], ed. Sándor Bodányi (Kolozsvár, 1869). Dimensions of the map: 119 × 83 cm.

64 Bodányi, Kolozsvár házbirtokosainak, 45.

65 Ibid., 15.