Zoltán Álgya-Pap was the only Hungarian general in the Second World War who received the coveted gold medal for extraordinary courage in face of enemy fire. Like most of the country’s military by 1944, his troops were dispirited, sick of the war and the Germans who on 19 March that year not only occupied their nominal ally Hungary but in fact took control of its armed forces, close to one million men. The Red Army’s juggernaut seemed irresistible. By the fall, the Russians were fighting on historic Hungarian territory west of the Carpathian mountain peaks. Between 23 and 26 October, Álgya-Pap rallied his troops in an old-fashioned way: he personally led them into battle. The surprise counter-attack is said to have saved his soldiers’ lives while smashing a Soviet force much larger and better equipped than the one under his command. He was promoted to Lieutenant General – altábornagy in Hungarian. Nevertheless, his victory was anomalous. It is an unremembered episode in the epic clash of the immense manpower of Germany and Russia.(1)
From the beginning of the war, Álgya-Pap knew that Nazi Germany was heading for defeat. But he was an officer living by the military code that required him to keep fighting to the best of his ability, regardless how hopeless victory appeared and what he thought of the Nazis.
The officers’ roster listed Álgya-Pap’s religion as Unitarian, a Protestant denomination known for its broadmindedness in his home region of Transylvania. In the 1930s and 40s, an officer tagging himself a theosophist would have raised eyebrows among his peers, some of them never heard the word. Others would have been suspicious of a worldwide organisation with the objective, defined by founder Helena Pavlovna Blavatsky, Russian by birth, “to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour”.
ENJOYING AN OFFICER’S GOOD LIFE
Born in 1895 in Budapest, Álgya-Pap enlisted as a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army at age 19 and was wounded in fighting the Russians soon after the Great War broke out in 1914. After the war he remained in the infantry as a career officer and advanced steadily through the ranks. His talent for picking up languages contributed to his appointment as a military attaché, first in Bulgaria from 1932 to 1934. Sofia was an important listening post, with much to learn from Tsar Boris III, nicknamed the Fox of the Balkans. Boris played a most dangerous game trying to stay neutral between Germany he distrusted and Russia admired by most of his subjects as their Big Slavic Brother. (He also refused to surrender to Nazi Germany his country’s 50,000 Jews. Adolf Hitler detested him and ordered his poisoning in 1943.)
Álgya-Pap’s reports must have impressed his superiors because his next assignments, from 1934 to 1937, to London and Washington at the same time, were plum postings reserved for the best and the brightest. Upon his return home, he transferred to the Border Guards, a key intelligence assignment in a country ringed by enemies that had annexed large parts of the pre-World War I Kingdom of Hungary. Budapest’s interwar foreign policy focused on recovering those lands.
Even before Hungary entered the Second World War in 1941, again on Germany’s side, Álgya-Pap was promoted in 1939 Chief-of-Staff of the Eighth Army Corps. His boss was Lieutenant General Ferenc Szombathelyi who in 1941 became chief of staff of the country’s military, as well as the architect of clandestine peace negotiations with the United States. It is reasonable to assume that Szombathelyi chose Álgya- Pap as his Number Two because the two men shared secret anti-Nazi views.
Álgya-Pap’s main contribution to the war took place in 1942–43 when he commanded a division on the Russian front. In January 1944, as the Red Army pushed back the Hungarian forces along with the Germans, Szombathelyi sent Álgya-Pap to Muraköz, on the Croatian border, to serve as the region’s military administrator, in the hope that as an experienced diplomat fluent in English he would negotiate with the Americans expected there.(2)
In March 1944, as the US–Hungarian negotiations collapsed, Álgya-Pap was assigned as the military’s representative on the special commission to administer the multi-ethnic region west of the Carpathian Mountains, known in the local languages as Sub-Carpathia. The First World War peace treaty had awarded the region to Czechoslovakia and Romania but Hitler returned much of it to Hungary. Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Sub-Carpathia’s small towns and villages. After the Germans forced the removal of Prime Minister Miklós Kállay who refused to allow the deportation of Hungary’s Jews, the new, pro- Nazi government promptly proceeded with plans drawn up by the SS and its Hungarian partners. The first step was to force the Jewish population into ghettoes and other collection points such as brick factories prior to deportation by train to the death camps in Greater Germany.
After Álgya-Pap chastised the gendarmerie for their inhumane methods in “corralling” Jews, Budapest ordered his removal from the special commission within 48 hours, according to the writer Jenő Lévai in his book on Hungarian Jews during the Second World War. The book, published in 1946, was lacking in dates but it detailed some of the atrocities promptly ordered by Álgya-Pap’s successor on the commission, Major General Géza Fehér, known for his far-right views.(3)
However, according to personnel files found recently by Sándor Szakály, Álgya- Pap headed Sub-Carpathia’s public administration (közigazgatás in Hungarian) from 1 March 1944 to 1 June. Szakály and other Hungarian military historians are unable to answer the question whether that job included the supervision of deportations which took place within that timeframe.(4) Both Szakály and Krisztián Ungváry cite a confusion of responsibilities and the absence of far-right leanings by Álgya-Pap. According to the Jewish community’s account, Álgya-Pap was present at the top-level 12 April meeting on the implementation of the anti-Jewish laws in Sub-Carpathia. Ghettoisation began on 20 April and the deportations followed in mid-May.
DIGGING COAL IN AN ARCTIC LABOUR CAMP
In a one-page typewritten English-language summary of his life mailed to Hungarian-born Swiss historian Péter Gosztonyi in 1972, Álgya-Pap wrote that he was wounded in November 1944 and “fell in Soviet captivity” in Vienna, in April 1945. But according to a theosophist source, he told friends in 1956 that he had voluntarily presented himself to Soviet authorities in Vienna. In any event, in 1947 a Soviet court sentenced Álgya-Pap to 25 years of hard labour for commanding troops that allegedly killed 3,000 prisoners of war and 40,000 civilians in the regions of Briansk and Kursk. As in other cases of Soviet jurisprudence, there is no way to prove or disprove the validity of the charges that Álgya-Pap chose not to contest. Nor did he appeal the judgement. He was sent to the Gulag, eventually to Vorkuta, an infamous slave labour camp in the arctic region. It seems reasonable to conclude that in conformity with the theosophical world view, he accepted his fate with equanimity. In his one-page curriculum vitae, Álgya-Pap devoted as much space to his military record as to the talks he gave to fellow prisoners on theosophy. He noted that “acute sufferings” made prisoners “more receptive” to ideas such as karma and reincarnation.
In 1955 he was suddenly released along with other Hungarian POWs, a surprise addition to the Soviet politburo’s decision to comply with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s request to repatriate some 10,000 German POWs. Álgya-Pap was sent to Budapest whose Stalinist leaders promptly arrested him and kept him in prison for a year and a half without a trial or an explanation. On 8 October 1956, shortly before the Hungarian Revolution erupted on 23 October, a prison official informed him that he was free to go anywhere he wished. Again, no explanation was offered for his incarceration.
As Soviet tanks crushed the revolution, Álgya-Pap joined some 200,000 Hungarians in fleeing to Austria. He received political asylum in the Netherlands where he got in touch with his pre-war contacts. He met N. Sri Ram, president of the Theosophical Society, who invited him to serve as an archivist in the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, India, south of Madras now known as Chennai. His knowledge of languages came in handy, especially the Russian he picked up as a POW. Ram entrusted him to translate and systematise Blavatsky’s vast trove of notes and correspondence, much of it in her first two languages, Russian and German. (Born into an aristocratic family in Russia in 1831, Madame Blavatsky, as she preferred to be called, was a controversial mystic with many influential friends including the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. She died in 1891 in London, in an influenza pandemic.)
Álgya-Pap had no interest in analysing the politics that held him captive. As a member of the Theosophical Society since 1936 and a student of its publications for years, he believed that a “master” in “an unseen but omniscient spiritual hierarchy” guided his life toward the bright promise of self-realisation. His curriculum vitae would have appealed to Joseph Conrad whose novels starred Europeans both richly rewarded and cruelly punished in the course of their adventures in unpredictable Asia. Conrad might have perceived Álgya-Pap’s thirty years in the army as pampered and the next ten years as punishment in the arctic hell of criminals. The third life? Fourteen intellectually active, successful years in India, ending with his return to Europe, where he brooded over sins of omission and commission in his first two lives in one body.
AT HOME IN INDIA, HIGH PRIEST AT LAST
Mystics of different belief systems agree that there is no such thing as an accident. A theosophist who as a young man met Álgya-Pap after his release from prison in Budapest suggests that Álgya-Pap’s “master” directed him to Russia so he could learn the language and translate Madame Blavatsky’s papers that shed light on “two true sages of the Orient” whom she had first met in her childhood dreams, and who later instructed her in Kashmir and Tibet, and then guided her activities which peaked with the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875.
As a graduate student researching sources for a PhD thesis on Hindu myths, I found Álgya-Pap a stimulating debating partner in the kind of hours-long conversations that build friendships in mystic India searching for harmonies, as well as in fiercely contentious Central Europe. In deference to his age and encyclopaedic knowledge, I called him Zoltán bácsi – Uncle Zoltán. Or perhaps it was he who suggested that familial form of address both of us found comfortable.
It was a joy spotting him on a bicycle on the road that connected the Theosophical Society’s spacious Victorian guesthouse where he lived in an apartment with his soulmate, a Dutch lady, and my small cabin in the woods rented to students who frequented the Society’s library. I stopped my scooter and he got off his bicycle in a fashion that reminded me of a cavalry officer dismounting his horse in the movies. We shook hands, and a smile spread across the deep lines of his face. Expressing hope that I had no other engagement, he invited me to tea and “to continue our conversation” fortified by cookies scented with either vanilla or lemon and baked by his soulmate, J.A.C. de Vogel van Gogh. A well-educated widow known to her friends as Peggy, she often joined us.
Wearing a starched white shirt of hand-spun local khaddar and immaculate white trousers of a European cut, Zoltán bácsi looked cool and untroubled by the worst tropical heat. He remembered every name and small detail that came up in our discussions – or promised to look it up in the library, which he did unfailingly the next day.
Close to his 70th birthday – still lean and fit, and his resonant baritone unbroken – he offered an unusual explanation why he chose a soldier’s life which began in a military academy as early as age 10. “As far back that I can remember, I have never feared death, and I have never regretted my decision to join the army”, he confided to me toward the end of a conversation about destiny and an individual’s limitations to affect it. He was also convinced that he would die abroad. But the location where the physical body he called “no more than an outer garment” would be put to its final rest is “of no importance”, he said. He added, almost as a footnote but surely meant as a headline, that “only the soul matters because it is immortal”.
In analysing Hindu mythology – one of the many subjects he knew very well – he stressed that the protagonists do what the gods tell them what they must do. Here and there, the myths introduce a semblance of choice, as in the Bhagavad Gita, where Prince Arjuna, the hero of the national epic Mahabharata, entertains second thoughts about the morality to fight a war that requires killing his cousins. But such a hesitation is a crowd-pleasing literary device, Zoltán bácsi argued, nothing more than a digression to sharpen the drama of the carnage in the end. There is no question as to the outcome. Arjuna excels in fighting, just as Krishna, a god of love and compassion disguised as Arjuna’s charioteer, tells him to. Even illiterate Hindus understand the message and approve the ultimate bloody result. I countered that in the popular local myths I studied an ambitious hero often disagrees with the gods and strikes out on his own against demons threatening his community. Aren’t there authentically Hindu storytellers with more than just a hint of dissent with the Brahminical canon?
A rebel loses out sooner or later, Zoltán bácsi replied, and the story always ends the way the gods determined eons ago. From the vantage point of eternity, resistance to the will of gods is pointless, he said with both arms raised high for emphasis. He added with a smile that for us romantic Europeans it is nice to hear that someone stood up for a good cause.
Promoted as senior archivist, Álgya-Pap received kudos for his sensitive handling of the Blavatsky papers. He was also named to a key position in the theosophical hierarchy. His title was not communicated to non-members but it had to do with ceremony and magic that Madame Blavatsky summed up as “the seventh ray”.
“You don’t know Zoltán until you see him in his regalia conducting a service for theosophists”, our mutual friend Yagneshwara Rao told me. Born in the same year as Zoltán, he liked to be called Yagna, Sanskrit for a ritual to invoke the gods and seek their blessings. He admired Zoltán’s dramatic diction and his dignified demeanour on a podium, as well as his modest, soft-spoken tone in everyday conversation.
British-trained archaeologist, staunch theosophist and brother of the Society’s president, Yagna identified himself as a student of character. He was certain that Zoltán was “not an actor” like others he knew holding similar positions but “a born high priest” who reminded him of the high priests in the Old Testament. Yagna called his friend “perfect” in carrying out the complex minutiae of his duties “flawlessly” and with “utmost devotion”.
Yagna found Zoltán “a rare man without anger” and endowed with an unusual ability to grow in wisdom at an advanced age. “How many people in the torture chambers of the Gulag learned to appreciate Russian literature?” Yagna asked. “Or started a successful new life in a radically different culture when in his 60s?” Yagna was impressed that in addition to the coarse colloquial Russian acquired from the guards and fellow prisoners, his friend learned enough literary Russian to enjoy the classics in the original. Advised by Zoltán who often cited Tolstoy and Gogol, Yagna read and fell in love with his friend’s favourites in English translations.
Yagna suggested that Zoltán was more at home in India than he ever was in Hungary. “I am a Brahmin”, he once told me in a long stream of consciousness while we sat on the beach, listening to the rhythm of the ocean’s waves. “I can’t help myself being a Brahmin. I cannot change and be someone else even if I absolutely have to. But Zoltán is not a Hindu or a Christian – or a Muslim or a Jew – and never could be.
He is a man like the first man the sun shone on – our Adam we call Manu. Zoltán approaches everyone he meets as a fellow human being, regardless of faith or ethnic origin or homeland. And he will be glad to learn any language he is addressed in.”
Yagna acknowledged that Zoltán was far ahead of him in spiritual progress. But, Yagna noted, he does not regret his failing to follow up on his initial training as a Brahmin priest in his youth. “Early on I discovered that I have insights into people’s character and where they come from”, he explained. “They are flashes of intuition appearing like fireflies in a dark night. Zoltán understands far more than I do. He has lived through much more than I have. His vision is synoptic. I’d like to see him reach the stage of a ‘master’ in a future life.”
The one subject Zoltán avoided discussing was the Second World War he characterised as “the deepest pit of inhumanity”. He was not the only Hungarian Gentile I knew who refrained from talking about having done something to help the Jewish population. Reading Jenő Lévai’s book in the 1990s and learning for the first time about General Álgya-Pap’s sharp criticism of the gendarmerie in Sub-Carpathia, it occurred to me that he might have objected to public recognition for his defiance of Nazi policies.
There are people who do not wish to have themselves identify as heroes, perhaps because they do not feel that they lived up to their definitions of a hero or they could not accept being celebrated when so many were killed without anyone attempting to rescue them. But I also know that silence can serve as an alternative to admitting guilt.
Zoltán bácsi and Yagna were both interested in Judaism. Zoltán bácsi asked pointed questions about my ancestors, as if he had known of their devotion to the cause of Hungarian independence as far back as the eighteenth century. (He was right, as I found out from my uncles.) Shortly after we met and talked about my studies, Yagna told me that he “kind of saw” someone who “kind of stood” behind me – not as a vengeful ghost out of the play Hamlet but as a caring ancestor, a student of the Talmud who considered agriculture the ideal occupation. (Years later when I delved into my family history, I made the connection: Yagna “saw” my late grandfather after whom I was named.)
The questions my two friends posed ignited my interest in Judaism. Yagna told me that in his own community – he was a Mylapore Brahmin, a high-class group known for the priests and scholars among its members – there is a common belief that Jews owe their famous solidarity to the fact that they reincarnate together as a group and some families have even earned the privilege of having their members reincarnating within the family. “Did you by any chance come from such a family”, Yagna asked me. I do not know, I said. Yagna pressed on: “Could you ask your most senior relative?” I did and I will not forget Yagna’s Buddha-like smile when I relayed the response from my mother’s eldest brother Shumi: “Yes, we have such a tradition in our family and even though I have been an atheist since age 18, I think that there may be some truth to it.”
THE MERCILESS MAGIC OF BIRTHS AND DEATHS
Zoltán bácsi died in 1987, at age 92,(5) in The Hague, the Netherlands, in an old-age home maintained by the theosophical movement, his soulmate Peggy informed me. In his last years he had gone blind and feeble, she wrote to me, but at peace with himself and the world.
Peggy was with him to the end which she considered a karmic obligation. When the two of them met shortly after Álgya-Pap arrived at the Dutch theosophical centre Huizen in 1956 as a refugee, they instantly recognised each other. They both believed that they were brother and sister in a previous life in China, centuries ago when newborn girls were considered a nuisance and sometimes given up or left to die. But in that particular incarnation the boy was able to persuade his parents to keep the baby girl which she would never forget, not even in another life.
Now that I am a few years older than Zoltán bácsi was when we met, I find myself wondering about his current reincarnation – or, as he would put it, what he may be wearing now as his “outer garment”. Is his soul now higher up or lower down on the spiritual ladder? I reckon that in the theosophical universe, he might have earned a promotion, based on his performance in his three most recent lives in one body. Might he now be a “master”, advising people still struggling to find their true mission on planet Earth? Or is he doing penance for something he did or did not do in the twentieth century, or in his earlier lives? Will we meet again?
But I stop my reverie. Such speculation by someone outside my friend’s faith community implies that I know more about its secret doctrines than I do. It would be also presumptuous of me to say that I knew him well. I am grateful to him for sharing his inside knowledge of Hindu thought and eighteenth century Hungarian history. He was one of the best read people I have ever met. His observations were not bookish but sounded like the recollections of a person who once lived in the cultures and historical periods under discussion. Yet I do wish I had known in the two years we were friends about his important wartime position in Sub-Carpathia. Once he mentioned to me that he had fought the war on both sides of the Carpathian Mountains. But he quickly added that he did not want to talk about it.
I regret that I may never know what went through his mind when the first train packed with Hungarian Jews left Sub-Carpathia for the then unknown Polish village Oswiecim – Auschwitz in German. I had many cousins in the Sub-Carpathian town called Huszt in Hungarian, now part of Ukraine and named Chust. They were boisterous lovers of stories and songs, and I enjoyed being part of such a family. While my parents could not afford to rent an apartment in Budapest, our closest relatives in Huszt, known collectively as the Krausz’s, were glad to keep a small child in their home again. For several months each year from 1940 to 1944 I lived in a big old wooden house owned by my father’s cousin Jenő bácsi and his wife Mariska néni who was my mother’s cousin. I had my own room, and a huge dog, a St Bernard named Harry, was assigned to sleep under my bed. He listened to my commands. “He thinks you are his master”, Uncle Jenő told me. “Don’t let him down.”
I cannot ask my Krausz cousins what they thought of the Hungarian officials who ruled over their lives because out of fifty-five of them only a single one returned alive from Auschwitz, and she was too young to know about local politics. A subject of Dr Mengele’s medical experiments, Kati Krausz could no longer bear a child. By now, she too is dead.
I cannot bring myself to believe that as a general, Zoltán bácsi was an enemy of my people – or of any other people. But he ordered his troops to kill and he might have even initialled papers that sent thousands to Auschwitz. From time to time I wonder what he might have done to help the persecuted and what his role could have been – or should have been. Did he have pangs of guilt or did he mindlessly – or reluctantly – follow orders? Later on, did he ease his conscience by forming a friendship with me, a lucky survivor of a war of extermination?
Intimacy grows quickly in the tropics, Joseph Conrad noted. In the novella The Heart of Darkness the fiancée of the adventurer Kurtz mourns her beloved, a dreamer of “immense dreams” in the Congo. She tells a visitor, Kurtz’s friend who was present at his deathbed: “It was impossible to know him and not to admire him.” The friend, who is also a critic, agrees “unsteadily” but concludes after parting with her that life is a “mysterious arrangement of merciless magic for a futile purpose”.
As a student then and now, I ask what I should have asked that visionary friend of my youth: What guidance did you receive from your omniscient masters? Were you always an obedient worshipper? Could you answer me?
1 Krisztián Ungváry: A magyar honvédség amásodik világháborúban [The Hungarian Army in the Second World War], Budapest, Osiris, 2005.
2 The information on Szombathelyi’s plan to use Álgya-Pap as the Hungarian delegate came from Hungarian military sources interviewed by Sándor Szakály. A plan to send an American team through communist-controlled Yugoslav territory to southwestern Hungary was outlined by OSS Lieutenant Colonel Gilmore Flues in an interview with this writer in 2001. Josip Broz Tito was outraged by the US idea of a separate peace with Hungary, Flues recalled. Tito not only refused help but threatened Flues – who headed the US intelligence team in touch with Tito – that his partizan forces would fight the Americans “as if they were Germans” in case the Americans tried to cross into Hungary. But the conspiracy to switch to the Allied camp was detected by the Germans who had Szombathelyi arrested upon their occupation of Hungary. He was charged with high treason. In a cruel twist of fate, in 1946 Tito’s men kidnapped Szombathelyi from Budapest. Following the judgement of a communist kangaroo court calling him responsible for a 1942 massacre of Yugoslav civilians he had nothing to do with – except that he was army Chief-of-Staff at the time – he was hanged in November.
3 Jenő Lévai: Fekete könyv [Black Book], Budapest, Officina, 1946, page 112. Lévai explains that his
information on the state commission was based on the court testimony of Aladár Vozáry, described as a “trustworthy eyewitness”.
4 Sándor Szakály: A magyar katonai felső vezetés 1938–1945 [The Hungarian Military High Command, 1938–1945], Budapest, Ister, 2003. According to the often contradictory military records researched by Szakály, Álgya-Pap had other responsibilities at the same time, such as serving as vice-president of the supreme military tribunal.
5 In his previous article published in the May issue of this Review, the author gave a wrong date for
the death of Álgya-Pap. He regrets the mistake.