|Géza Szávai: Székely Jeruzsálem (Székely Jerusalem). Budapest, Pont Kiadó, 2000, 442 pp., with the author's black and white photographs
"In Transylvania, a land of legendary tolerance, where several nations have lived side by side for centuries, a Hungarian community converted to the faith of the Jews at the end of the 16th century. They had no ties of blood with the Jews. They professed to be Jews in spirit." Thus begins Géza Szávai, a Transylvanian Székely, who moved from Romania to Budapest at the end of the eighties, his massive volume of almost 450 pages. It relates the history of that small, exotic Hungarian community in Transylvania, the Székely Jews. They are an almost unique ethnographic curiosity-certain to arouse the interest of sociologists, ethnographers and historians of culture-in that this small community tied itself to the Jews not for genealogical reasons but out of religious conviction.
The only similar phenomenon known to history are the Khazar Jews. Several historians, among them A. N. Poliak (Jerusalem, 1941) and D. M. Dunlop (Princeton, 1954) found that the Khazar Khanate that existed in the region of the Caucasus and the Volga in the early Middle Ages (to which the nomad Hungarian tribes joined temporarily) tried to avoid the political influence of the Byzantine Empire and of the Muslim Baghdad Caliphate by adopting Judaism as its state religion. Their case is vividly recounted in Arthur Koestler's The Thirteenth Tribe (1976).
The story of the Transylvanian Székely Sabbatarians goes back four hundred years, a story embedded in the history of the Reformation in Transylvania. The Reformation reached Transylvania in successive waves in mid-16th century, around the time of the Ottoman invasion, which resulted in the end of the medieval Hungarian kingdom and its division into three parts. In the autonomous, eastern part of the country, the Transylvanian Principality, which had considerable political and military success as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, it was the Lutheran Reformation that first appeared. The Lutheran faith was never abandoned by the Transylvanian Saxons (one of the three "represented nations", the other two being the Hungarians and Székely, while Romanians, then a minority, were not considered a "nation"). The next wave brought the Calvinist Reformation, which became the religion of the majority of Hungarians in the Principality; this was followed by the appearance of the Unitarians, who denied the Holy Trinity. The latter even became the state religion for a short time, when Prince John Sigismund (son of John Szapolyai) converted to that faith. The Transylvanian "Jews," or more precisely, the Sabbatarians who accepted the dogmas and rites of Judaism, drew the ultimate conclusions in this religious reform by returning to the principles of the Old Testament, with a compatible religious life and communities.
The Sabbatarians, whose religious communities lived in the land of the Székely in the east of Transylvania, did not gain many adherents. Their most eminent supporter was Simon Péchi, who had a brilliant career as a public servant and became the chancellor of Prince Gabriel Bethlen-it was probably due to this adherence that he fell out of the prince's favour, and was incarcerated twice. Prince George Rákóczi I even forced him to renounce his faith and return to the Calvinist Church. Four centuries of hardships followed for Transylvanian Sabbatarians, who stood apart also from the "real" Jews of Transylvania. By the nineteenth century they made up the majority only in a small village, Bözödújfalu (Bezidul Nou), near Marosvásárhely (Targu Mures¸). There they maintained a synagogue, where their rabbis preached, whose life was little different from that of the peasants. Few as the Székely Sabbatarians were, their uniqueness in ethnography and religious history always drew the interest of intellectuals in Transylvania and Hungary. Baron Zsigmond Kemény devoted a novel to the tragic fate of Simon Péchi and his followers (A rajongók, The Fanatics, 1859), and they appear in the works of Mór Jókai, the great master of the 19th-century Hungarian novel, Balázs Orbán, acclaimed chronicler of the life of the Székely, Zsigmond Móricz, the twentieth-century virtuoso of realism, and in those of the Transylvanian novelist and sociologist György Bözödi. A recent account of their sufferings came from the historian and ethnographer András Kovács of Kolozsvár (Cluj), who himself belongs to a Sabbatarian family.
The story of the Sabbatarians is a calvary, which marks the signposts of a tale of injuries to human rights and dignity in Central Europe. Géza Szávai's work is an absorbing chronicle of this communal calvary. The Székely "Jews" were persecuted for centuries before religious emancipation in the second half of the nineteenth century brought them relief, only to be hurled back into being a harassed minority in the twentieth century. When the land they inhabited became, as a result of the Second Vienna Award, part of Hungary again (1940-1944), they were forced into ghettoes like the Jews in Hungary and Transylvania; some of them were slaughtered by the Nazis together with other Jews, some of them survived. Even the latter were dispersed after the war, owing to the more or less official anti-Semitism of the Romanian regime; they had to face oppression either as Hungarians (Székely) or as Jews. On this, Szávai quotes MosheCamilly-Weinberger's The History of Jews in Transylvania (1995): "In 1938 Romania practically denied the citizenship of those Jews who obtained it after 1918, 'which made Transylvanian Jews outlaws in their country.'"
It was a plan by President and First Secretary Ceaus¸escu that brought the end of the Bözödújfalu Székely Jewish community, when at the end of the 1980's, shortly before his fall, he decided to annihilate Transylvanian Hungarian communities by destroying their villages and transporting the people to housing estates. Bözödújfalu was one of the villages that fell victim to this plan. In 1989 the small Küsmöd river was dammed, and the houses as well as the synagogue were flooded, the inhabitants moved. Only a few ruins rise out of the artificial lake now, as a sad memento of relentless unprovoked aggression. A few tombstones have survived in the old Sabbatarian graveyard, whose Old Testament adornment, as well as the ornamentation of some fallen walls, are reminders of the religious spectrum of historic Transylvania. The old dwellers of the ruined village make occasional pilgrimages to this doleful monument, to remember their past and their ordeals.
Bözödújfalu has gone, the community of Székely Jews is dispersed and extinguished. Géza Szávai's work is a remembrance of this community, of its terminated history. The main motive behind it is his conviction that the four hundred years of the Transylvanian Székely Jews are part of Hungarian history, and that the tragic tale of the "Székely Jerusalem" has a message relevant for today. As he puts it:
I think we Hungarians, after all our painful and pathetic blundering in the twentieth century, should at last assimilate ourselves, learn, and let others learn, about our past achievements in thought and conscience-which include the heart-mind-and-soul-rending story of Hungarian Jews, which started in the late sixteenth century, ran on several planes, and always intertwined with ours.
The book is thus soul-searching, both personal and communal, and the answers sought include why the Székely Jews suffered such a fate, and also general lessons to be drawn from the history of Hungarians and other ethnicities in Transylvania; at the same time; it is also an account of the author's life, the development of his thinking and worldview.
For, as a background to the life of the Székely Jews of Bözödújfalu, the history of Transylvania is unfolded, especially the sad case of almost two million Hungarians who came under Romanian rule almost a hundred years ago. Transylvania used to be a land of cultural and ethnic diversity, a haven of liberty of conscience and religion. Szávai proudly refers to the decrees of the 1568 Diet of Torda (Turda), the first to declare in a Europe rent by religious wars and autos-da-fé, the principle of the freedom of conscience, an idea that was later to become a cornerstone of Western civilization. He quotes the famous decree of tolerance: "Let preachers preach the Gospel in all places, according to their own minds, and let the community decide whether they accept it or not; let not the preacher be forced to change his mind, and let every community keep a preacher they like; from which it follows that no superintendents can hurt preachers, and nobody can be censured for his religion, and that nobody can be threatened with incarceration or ousting for his teaching, for faith is a gift of God, which is fostered by listening, which listening derives from God's word." Szávai also points out that accepting the achievements of the Reformation and the emancipation of the Reformed Churches, involved lessening the importance of the formerly sovereign Roman Catholic Church.
Not only the three "nations" and the "accepted" churches (Roman Catholic, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians) enjoyed the benefits of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience: Romanians, who were slowly becoming the majority, and their Orthodox and Uniate Catholic churches also had their liberty. (In medieval Transylvania, the Romanians, migrating from the south and east, were only a small minority. Their numbers grew because, unlike the Hungarians, who lived on the plains and were thus exposed to the ravages of Tatars and Turks, the Romanians lived and grazed their herds in the mountains, where they could multiply in peace. Despotic rule and reckless exploitation in territories beyond the Carpathians also drove throngs of them into Transylvania, where they took lands abandoned by Hungarians. By the eighteenth century they had become the largest ethnic group in Transylvania.)
Transylvania, a society made up of three nations (Hungarian, Romanian and German), three cultures and six or seven religions, was not without ethnic or cultural conflicts. Yet Szávai rightly claims that "Transylvanianism," the prevailing mentality of the interwar period, had a balancing and unifying effect; he even sees the idea as the forerunner of the regionalist efforts of today's Europe.
Three ethnicities of considerable size lived in the Transylvanian fairyland. As if three European ethnicities had pooled their resources for a Transylvanian whole. Every one of the three "nation parts" had been enriching its "nation whole" for centuries, yet these "nation parts" managed to contribute to one another while adhering to their own particularities, and created a tolerance zone in this experimental fairyland which was unprecedented in history, a working model for the equality-based cohabitation of communities of varied identities. What was wonderful about this arrangement was that none of the parties had anything to lose-all participants gained by it. All parties, as well as the environment, which as posterity is still an environment… called Europe, and is presently engaged in developing models of the sort that came to be and was prosperous in the Transylvanian fairyland, until the incondite and alien quality, as well as the absurd proneness to extemporization, of twentieth century geopolitics, which suddenly had to deal with global issues, destroyed it.
By the twentieth century the situation had become ripe for Austro-Hungarian politics to solve the Transylvanian issue (then still within the framework of historic Hungary) along the multicultural traditions of Transylvania (and the decrees of the Diet of Torda). Oszkár Jászi, editor of the bourgeois-radical journal Huszadik Század, and the most clear-sighted Hungarian thinker in the first decades of the century, suggested (together with Endre Ady, the most influential poet of the period) a Swiss model, that is, the self-government and federal union of the peoples of Transylvania (and even of Hungary); the idea of the "Eastern Switzerland," which Szávai refers to with great sympathy, could have solved the ethnic and cultural conflicts of that part of the world. The defeat of Hungary in the First World War, the Romanian invasion of Transylvania (as well as of the eastern part of Hungary in 1919), and the confirmation of the situation by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, swept aside these federalist plans, and the Hungarians and Germans of Transylvania had to face the forceful assimilation of Greater Romania, the strategy being the breaking of the national identity of non-Romanian ethnicities. There were relatively easier periods within this march towards homogeneity, like the second half of the 1920's, or between 1945 and 1947 (the Paris Peace Treaty), as well as downright brutal ones, as in the 1930's and during Ceaus¸escu's reign of terror.
Szávai spent the harshest period, the seventies and eighties, in Bucharest. His experiences there included the tragic, which ultimately made him settle in Hungary at the end of the eighties. His book is thus not only an account of the historical fate of the Székely Jews and the ordeal of Transylvanian Hungarians: it is also a self-portrait, a personal history. Székely Jeruzsálem can consequently be read as an autobiography, a confession, which unfolds the éducation sentimentale of a young man. A childhood spent in the land of the Székely (near the Bözödújfalu Székely Jewish community); a Catholic teacher father, who yielded to political pressure and joined the Communist party; the Szekler peasants who treated with instinctive distrust the activity of the Bucharest powers that be-Stalinist and nationalistic at the same time; the village community, which was, with the reflexes of hundreds of years, intent on survival, on surviving the always calamitous, often cruel, turns of history, the insanity, bru-tality and dishonesty of those in power.
Personal history time and again comes in contact with social history. "I lived in a very close relation with history. As a child, my sense of history was formed by elements of reality that were really close at hand." The early years spent near historical monuments and places made Szávai notice the customs of Székely Jews, their "difference" and communal values. As a student and journalist in Bucharest, he came to understand the true nature of the Ceaus¸escu regime, as well as to appreciate the meaning and consequences of being excluded, persecuted and forced into a ghetto, the traditional fate of Eastern and Central European Jews.
To become a Jew or to be a Jew must be a very complicated issue. But to be made a Jew-that is very easy. I was made a Jew; I now can tell what it is like to be a Jew. The world wants to know little, and hence knows little, about what Romania was like in the eighties. Universities and academies all over the world gave honorary doctorates to 'the genius of the Romanian people," and his learned wife "Dr Elena Ceaus¸escu, engineer and member of the academy"-I think I use the official epithets correctly, as it was impossible to use any other in a newspaper. Conditions in Bucharest were likened to those in Leningrad under siege. But if in Leningrad everyone could feel a hero, a defender of the city, in Bucharest it was dangerous to be a Hungarian. In the capital of this European country, members of the "glorious Romanian people" (as they were dubbed in the newspapers), who were completely isolated from the world, came up to you in the street and told you to speak Romanian. It was at this time that my wife fell ill. I thought we wouldn't come through, would be crippled or dead. Now I only feared for Eszter. I took her home to my parents in Etéd. There at least there was food. (In Bucharest the official bread ration "as optimized by Romanian researchers who are in the front-rank of international science," was smaller than in Auschwitz, I was told by my colleague Anikó Halász, who had survived the death camp, but who was clueless as to what would happen to her in Bucharest.) Ceaus¸escu granted the Romanians the pleasure of unpenalized hooliganism and hate. I can tell you because it was my experience, that for many people meant more than bread.
Szávai's book, rich in observation, information and thought-provoking comments, is a social and personal history at the same time, a portrait of society as well as an autobiographical confession. It is in fact a post-modern novel, which in the framework of post-modern narration gives a historical and cultural overview, a sociological survey, the history of a family, an autobiography, it presents interesting characters and historical documents. Post-modern narration also evokes old epic traditions, like the Transylvanian memoir literature in Hungarian (Prince János Kemény, György Rettegi, Orphan Kata Bethlen, Miklós Bethlen, Kelemen Mikes); historical-political analyses or colourful anecdotes which are meant to throw more light on an event or character, place the book in this tradition. The author's own photographs are an invaluable addition to the narrative and the documents in illustrating the fate of the Székely Jewish community and their village.
Géza Szávai's work is an important contribution to our view of Hungarian history and society, proving that Hungarian descriptive sociology, once so influential but recently losing much of its vigour, has still great possibilities. These possibilities may go beyond what has been customary in traditional literary accounts of the study of communities, and may be called the tools of "post-modern" community studies. It is a narrative that reconciles events with personal histories, documents with the confession, and thus gives voice to the "truth" of the subject. An attempt that is underpinned by Szávai's own profession:
The story of the Székely Jerusalem is like a dream for me, in which the events of many centuries whirl. Dreams do not alter reality, but they at least show what is true. Dreams do not lie. Dreams keep returning. And logic is eternal… And if all this is true and it is, then the Székely Jerusalem must be considered as something that can be saved for human remembrance.|
The Hungarian Quarterly, VOLUME XLII * No. 164 * Winter 2001